That “Seven Psychopaths” is twisted, there can be no question. As to whether or not it’s successful, that’s open for debate. Here is a movie that’s narratively and atmospherically all over the map; in one fell swoop we’re given a crime thriller and a comedy, and in both instances, they involve a stolen dog, a developing screenplay, promises for screen credit, alcoholism, people getting shot and burned alive, two generations of serial killers, and wordy discussions about the merits of cinematic shootouts and the possibility of an afterlife. I cannot sit here and say that I know what the film is about. I can say that I never once found it boring. I can also say that select scenes and passages of dialogue are … I was going to say funny, but given the innate unpleasantness of murder, I think amusingly clever would be a more accurate description.
Exactly who are the seven psychopaths? Contrary to what both the trailer and the poster tell us, the characters played by Colin Farrell, Abbie Cornish, and Olga Kurylenko aren’t among them. Farrell plays Marty Faranan, an Irish-born alcoholic screenwriter living in Los Angeles; “Seven Psychopaths” is the title of his latest script, which he’s struggling to finish. Cornish plays his girlfriend, Kaya, who’s essentially dropped from the story after breaking up with Marty over an insulting comment he made while under the influence at a party. As for Kurylenko, she plays the barely-seen girlfriend of a local crime boss named Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), so at best, one can say that she’s only dating a psychopath.
One of the psychopaths is a fictional character, which is to say he exists only within the pages of Marty’s screenplay. This would be a Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen), who seeks revenge on the soldiers that killed his family during the My Lai Massacre. Another psychopath is essentially only a legend as retold by Marty’s best friend, an unemployed actor named Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell). According to the story, a Quaker seeking retribution for the murder of his daughter followed her killer, a reformed man, for eleven years until he was driven by madness to slit his own throat; he believed he would be sent to hell and set free from the Quaker, although he didn’t count on the fact that the Quaker would end up slitting his own throat at the same time. We see the first psychopath, a mask-wearing killer of mafia figures known as Jack O’Diamonds for his trademark of leaving a jack of diamonds playing card at the scene of his crimes. For a time, the seventh psychopath remains a mystery.
Although there is a sequence of events, I hesitate to say that the film has a plot. Billy, who’s also a part-time dog thief, kidnaps a Shih Tzu with the help of his partner in crime, Hans (Christopher Walken), a nonviolent man whose beloved wife is being treated for cancer. Little do both men know that the dog’s owner is Charlie, an emotional pet lover. Knowing Marty needs a little inspiration to get his screenplay finished, Billy ropes him into the escalating situation. Eventually, a man named Zachariah Rigby (Tom Waits), who carries around a pet rabbit, has entered the picture. He’s another psychopath; decades ago, he and his then-wife became serial killers of other serial killers (the moral implications of this aren’t discussed, perhaps wisely so). Now he’s responding to an ad placed in “Variety” by Billy on Marty’s behalf. Eventually, Marty, Billy, Hans, and Charlie’s dog will retreat to the desert, where the humans will discuss the direction of the “Seven Psychopaths” screenplay and argue over a climactic gunfight.
Although there is a bizarre logic to the pacing, the structure, and the eccentric performances, the plot in and of itself is maddeningly unclear about what the point is. That’s assuming, of course, that there even is a point, and I have my doubts about that; writer/director Martin McDonagh appears to be more interested in style than in substance, which is to say that the film looks good and has a lot of energy and wit but not much in the way of purpose. Not much that’s apparent to the audience, at least. This is in direct opposition to his previous film, “In Bruges,” which interwove an equally twisted crime caper with characters that were surprisingly complex and engaging. “Seven Psychopaths” approaches that level with the character of Hans, but it doesn’t quite reach it. His presence comes off largely as a convenient means to an end, an excuse for the inclusion of specific scenes and turns of events.
I haven’t said much about the film’s violence, which in select instances could arguably rival the gratuitousness of a particularly gory teen slasher film. I know intellectually that it’s in the spirit of fun and not meant to be analyzed, but emotionally, I find myself resisting. The film is so much more engaging when the focus is the dialogue, a strange but fascinating mixture of foul gangster talk and intellectual debate. Had there been greater insight into the characters, it probably would have had an even greater effect on me. As it is, “Seven Psychopaths” is difficult to process but impossible to ignore. It’s goofy and sadistic, it meanders, and it never comes to a satisfying conclusion, and yet you can’t tear your eyes away from it. Looking at it from that perspective alone, it’s quite an achievement.