Seven Psychopaths features psychopaths aplenty, but any other expectations raised by its ready-for-the-drive-in title should probably be left behind. The second feature from Irish playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh stars Colin Farrell as an Irish screenwriter named Martin laboring, through a haze of alcohol, on a screenplay called Seven Psychopaths. That’s the start, but hardly the end, of the film’s meta touches. As the film opens, Farrell has little more than the title and a life that, by apparent coincidence, has decided to start feeding him inspiration. There’s one obvious psychopath in the news, for instance, a masked killer who seems to limit his murders to those involved with organized crime. Hungry for inspiration, Farrell takes the detail and runs with it on the page as far as it will go. Turns out it isn’t far enough, but happily, at least for his screenplay, his life is on the verge of several more inspiring twists and turns.
It doesn’t hurt when Farrell’s best friend (Sam Rockwell) places an ad for psychopaths in the local paper, or when Rockwell and partner Christopher Walken decide to kidnap a Shih Tzu belonging to a hot-tempered mob boss (Woody Harrelson) as part of an ongoing scam to collect money from rich dog owners. More convolutions follow, but for all the film’s narrative contortions, it isn’t really about the plot. Or, more accurately, it’s more about the business of storytelling, and all its attendant pleasures and responsibilities, than the plot itself. The film pauses to spin tales within tales, including a sequence with Harry Dean Stanton as a vengeful Quaker, which doubles as a satisfying short film unto itself. Then, after a while, Seven Psychopaths pulls back in scope and comes this close to breaking the fourth wall. The characters ponder their place in the universe in ways that suggest they might understand they’re characters in a thriller, heading toward the bloodbath demanded by the title of Farrell’s unwritten script and the movie that contains it.
Not all McDonagh’s ambition pays off. Some of the postmodern gestures feel like little more than games. There’s less cohesion here than in kindred-spirit films like Adaptation or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and a running commentary on movie violence comes off as a bit vague. But while Seven Psychopaths sometimes hits the philosophical shallows, its pleasures still run deep. Farrell provides a frustrated, foggy anchor to the madness around him, a counterbalance to Rockwell’s loopy enthusiasm for chaos and Walken’s soulful turn as a man who’s seen too much violence and knows he’s destined to see more. The performance is in no way a departure from past roles, but it it’s one of the best chances Walken has gotten to be Walken in a while, and he runs with it. So does McDonagh, gleefully blowing up the movie even while he’s making it. He doesn’t leave much behind beyond a trail of blood, wit, and confusion, but it’s something to see while it lasts.