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Seven Psychopaths

Sometimes, there really doesn’t need to be a better reason to watch a film than pure escapism. When the weight of the world becomes too heavy and everything seems too grim and too real, a nice, light, fluffy, loud popcorn movie can be just what the doctor ordered. Heck, I grew up on dumb ’80s B-movies, so I know the joy of this more than anyone. To be honest, however, big, dumb movies nowadays don’t do much for me.

Kind of like the person who has to constantly proclaim their “indie-ness,” some films just try way too hard to seem effortless and breezy. Most of Zach Snyder’s output strikes me in this way (especially Sucker Punch) and I get the same basic vibe from trailers I’ve seen of Kick Ass and its sequel. There’s a certain art to making a fun, dumb, breezy film and, as far as I’m concerned, too few modern films get it right: too much in one direction and the film becomes genuinely bone-headed; not enough and it all seems like too much of an obvious “wink” to the audience.

If genuinely fun, dumb films are difficult to pull off, then trying to replicate the complex structure of something like Pulp Fiction, while simultaneously attempting to adhere to the tenets of dumb movies is almost impossible. Too many Tarantino clones drown their proceedings in either fake blood or chewy dialogue, either of which can turn an audience off faster than a filmmaker can pull them back in. A few films, however, manage to walk this tightrope quite ably. Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths almost makes the trip but, ultimately, ends up in the net with most of the others.

I was a huge fan of writer/director McDonagh’s previous film, In Bruges, finding it to be one of the more clever, impactful “Tarantino clones” out there. The acting, by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, was spot-on and the story hummed along like a juiced-up power line. That being said, I was a little bit wary of Seven Psychopaths when I first saw the trailer: compared to In Bruges, this definitely seemed like a much louder, dumber picture. Throw in one of those huge modern ensemble casts that seem to populate every action movie nowadays (Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey Sidibe) and this wasn’t the immediate must-see that I expected after In Bruges. My expectations, to say the least, weren’t particularly high.

Unlike In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths is a very dumb film, almost aggressively so. The dialogue, for the most part, is bloated and clunky; the acting is either exceptionally broad or pretty good; situations range from eye-rolling to forehead smacking and any sense of logic is pretty much tossed to the way-side before the film’s first act has concluded. That being said, Seven Psychopaths moves along at a vicious pace and is quite a rollercoaster ride, provided one is able to check their brain at the door.

The film concerns the antics of screenwriter Marty (Farrell), his “best friend” Billy (Rockwell) and Billy’s best friend, Hans (Walken). Marty is trying to write a script called “Seven Psychopaths” (natch), while Billy and Hans have a simpler goal: they just want to continue running their dog-napping scheme and, in the case of Billy, being a general hemorrhoid on the ass of humanity. Billy, you see, is a verifiable lunatic, a real psycho who acts first and thinks second in any given situation. Billy and Hans end up taking the wrong pooch, a little mutt belonging to Charlie (Harrelson). If Billy is a little nuts, Charlie is a whole lotta nuts and is determined to reclaim his prized pet at any cost, preferably via the violent deaths of everyone involved. Will Marty ever finish his screenplay? Will Charlie ever get back his dog? Will we ever find out who the Seven Psychopaths are? Will it make sense when we do?

Similar to junk food, Seven Psychopaths is enjoyable, at the time, but completely disposable afterwards. In other words, this may be one of the best “big dumb movies” in history. The opening scene is great shorthand for what the rest of the film has to offer: two hitmen stand around, making idle conversation, while an unseen masked man approaches them steadily from behind. The two hitmen are so wrapped up in their banter that they never even react when the masked gunman is suddenly behind them, turning their faces into red mist with a couple well-placed shots to the back of the head. A title appears on the screen: Psychopath #1. And we’re off to the races!

Or are we? For, you see, this very first scene was the point where I realized that Seven Psychopaths was going to be the film equivalent of marzipan cake decorations. To start with, the banter between the hitmen is leaden and, quite frankly, stupid. Had the dialogue been clever and well-written, the scene may have had some of the feeling of Reservoir Dogs famous “Madonna breakfast” or Pulp Fiction’s “Royale with Cheese.” As it is, the dialogue feels like it was improvised on the spot by a couple of actors who aren’t particularly comfortable with improv. It’s almost painful to watch/listen to but made doubly so by the unsettling notion that the filmmakers think this is pretty cool. They must, because the clunky dialogue rears it head time and time again. I couldn’t count the number of times where I would genuinely invested in the action only to be pulled out completely by some silly, stupid or unnecessarily self-referential bit of dialogue. Again, it had all of the unfortunate earmarks of a writer a little too pleased with his own sense of cleverness.

Which, ultimately, is a shame because a lot of Seven Psychopaths is a real hoot, albeit in a moonshine rather than cognac way. Some of the vignettes that introduce Marty’s  psychopaths (particularly the Vietnamese “priest” and the Amish killer) are stylish in a nearly perfect way and the actions scenes all have a real sense of urgency and energy to them. The acting isn’t always notable but it’s usually energetic, with Harrelson deserving special mention as a genuinely scary individual. Sobbing over his dog one minute, killing an innocent woman the next, Charlie reminded me (in a strictly positive way) of Gary Oldman’s stellar Drexl, from True Romance. Every film needs a good villain and Charlie was pretty darn good. Walken, as usual, was pretty great and while I’m not the biggest Farrell or Rockwell fan, I thought they were both believable, although I often found Billy to be a completely obnoxious, capricious character.

Unfortunately, lots of good elements are constantly let down by a sub-par script. While the dialogue is bad enough, some of the gaping plot holes and confusing story elements are almost worse. At one point, I was so confused by the various psychopaths’ backstories that I actually thought two of them were the same person, which is made more confusing later on when two of them ARE the same person. And this happened despite the fact that I took pages of copious notes…yikes. There’s also two campfire “storytelling” scenes that take place at different times but are shot and presented in the exact same way, making it seem as if the events occur at the same time. Not a critical injury, mind you, but pretty damn sloppy, especially when compared to the tight plotting of In Bruges.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s an awful lot to like about Seven Psychopaths: any film that features Tom Waits as a serial killing serial-killer killer with a fluffy white rabbit, Christopher Walken tripping on peyote in the desert and Harry Dean Stanton as a vengeful Amish father is already a lot cooler than most films out there. The visuals are bright and gaudy, there are a few nicely stylized shootouts and everything chugs along with all the anarchy of an old Warner Bros. cartoon. Too bad, then, that the film ends up being so wildly inconsistent and, ultimately, stupid. I’m more than willing to tell my brain to go sit out on the porch for a while: Seven Psychopaths would rather I shoot it and put it out of its misery.