“Seven Psychopaths” proves you should never judge a movie by its title. Playwright turned movie director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) starts with the title and knowingly ropes you in to a movie you both did and didn’t expect it to be.
It’s a movie about movies, it’s about writers with writer’s block, it’s about how psychopathic we must be to enjoy a movie about psychopaths, and it’s one of the more twistedly clever movies of the year.
Colin Farrell as Marty is not one of the movie’s seven psychopaths, but he must be crazy to think he can get any work done on a screenplay when he’s an alcoholic writer and Irishman. All he has so far is the title, “Seven Psychopaths,” which is good enough for everyone, because a title like that should write itself. But he doesn’t know who the psychopaths are, and he doesn’t want them to be violent or the movie to be a mindless bloodbath. One of them, he thinks, could be a Buddhist.
But this isn’t good enough for Billy (Sam Rockwell), a crook who kidnaps dogs and returns them for reward money along with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken). Billy suggests one of the psychopaths could be based on a local serial killer called the Jack of Diamonds, who goes around killing members of crime syndicates. All the plots inevitably intertwine when Billy kidnaps crime boss Charlie’s (Woody Harrelson) shih tzu puppy and he comes looking for them.
The twist of “Seven Psychopaths” however is that this is the set up. The title itself is a ploy. Suddenly on the run, Marty wonders that if this were the story of his movie, what if the second half was just three guys sitting in the desert and talking? The movie calls attention to itself in the biggest way possible. It’s writing the movie as it goes, recognizing the over-stylized shootout isn’t as fun or as funny as it seems, showing the seams of its plot and acknowledging that even a sincere attempt at life lessons can be phony.
It’s not quite “Pulp Fiction” because it has its own set of rules instead of none at all. It’s not quite “Snatch” because it’s smarter than that and only uses the movie’s ideas as a template for parody. And it’s not quite “Adaptation” because at the end of the day this is still a screwball, blood-drenched mob comedy.
“Seven Psychopaths” is its own movie. It’s got layers, as it says. It’s a movie inside itself that doesn’t play out in ways you would expect, but then does on a technicality.
At its core, the film works because McDonagh’s dialogue isn’t funny just because it’s self-aware, and it doesn’t waste the talent on screen just to make a point about movies like this. Woody Harrelson is probably best, using obscenely large guns and other props like a wheelchair to always teeter on comedic and menacing and make his own legacy as an iconic and memorable movie villain.
And McDonagh isn’t just a stylistic copycat. He backs away from most of the pop culture references and focuses carefully on the proper aesthetic of the action comedy dream sequence and how he can tweak it. Take note of the maudlin score and storybook monologue during a montage telling the story of Zacharia (Tom Waits), another serial killer specializing in killing serial killers who acted with a Bonnie Parker partner in crime and fell in love.
The question is whether or not “Seven Psychopaths” earns its stripes. The movie is so self-aware that it even calls itself out on its own trap. These characters can’t necessarily be liked, the movie really can only end one way and the insights really can only be skin deep. If “Seven Psychopaths” is a movie within a movie, it seems to say how you couldn’t possibly enjoy a movie like this as you’re watching it.