‘Seven Psychopaths’: Brutally funny

October 11, 2012

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for Martin McDonagh’s work.

I’m a fan of his plays and loved his first feature, “In Bruges.” And I’m just as excited about his new film, “Seven Psychopaths,” perhaps the movie that forces you to laugh at more inappropriate moments than any film in recent memory, at least since “Ted.”

But “Ted” created comedy out of sex, drugs, race and body fluids. McDonagh creates moments of carnage that provoke guffaws; you don’t have to be British to say this guy is bloody funny.

And then bloodier – and funnier. If film violence makes you queasy– particularly, gun violence, though there are machetes wielded at one point – well, this probably isn’t the movie for you. Otherwise, you’re in for a treat – a movie about killers that makes you die with laughter.

The Irish writer-director here takes on the brutal business of organized crime, when he isn’t touching upon the even more brutal business of movie-making. He sets his film in Los Angeles, populates it with a collection of mixed nuts and starts shooting.

The ostensible center of the film is Marty (Colin Farrell), a middling screenwriter who’s late with his latest script. His girlfriend (Abby Cornish) is fed up with him; even his best friend, the loose-cannon Billy (Sam Rockwell), thinks his problem is he drinks too much and writes too little. But Billy is interested in the only part of the new script that Marty has finished: the title – “Seven Psychopaths.” Now if he only had a plot.

Billy, meanwhile, is in business with his pal Hans (Christopher Walken). They snatch dogs off the street, then wait for the inevitable Xeroxed flyers to get taped to phone poles offering a reward. They show up with dog in hand – “Is this your dog?” offered innocently – and allow themselves to be talked into accepting a cash reward.

But Billy has grabbed the wrong dog – a Shih Tzu named Bonny that belongs to the vicious gangster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Charlie puts his entire gang on the case to find the little dog, leaving a trail of corpses in their wake.

Oh, and one other thing: There’s a real psychopath on the loose in L.A., one who walks up on real-life gangsters and casually blows them away, leaving a jack of diamonds on each body.

There’s more – much more – in McDonagh’s script, including a dissection of what should and shouldn’t happen at the end of a good action movie. Billy has definite opinions; Marty, however, wants to break the mold, though his idea essentially is to write an action movie without action.

McDonagh’s digressions are numerous, some more fruitful than others. His plays are full of moments in which the characters stop and tell stories. Some of his plays consist mostly of that – and are still amazingly compelling.

In this movie, he does the same thing, but McDonagh can show the action as the characters tell their tales. Some stories are more fruitful than others; they all have moments to recommend them (such as the autobiography that Tom Waits offers, as a character who answers an ad Billy placed in a free weekly looking for real-life psychopaths to share their stories with Marty).

But McDonagh knows what this movie is about: the collision of the simple-minded and the bloody-minded. Even as his characters discuss how an action movie should end, McDonagh is slyly doing just what he’s talking about. It’s not quite as meta as what Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze pulled off in “Adaptation” but it’s close. And every bit as funny.

McDonagh is slowly building his own unique little repertory company, beginning with Farrell (who all but stole “In Bruges”). He also brings aboard Rockwell and Walken, who starred in his Broadway play, “A Behanding in Spokane.” He makes Harrelson a full-fledged member, as the short-tempered (but hilariously sensitive) gangster. And he salts the film with smaller but no less tasty appearances by everyone from Michaels Pitt and Stuhlbarg to Harry Dean Stanton to Gabourey Sidibe.

Farrell is believably muddled as the sozzled writer, reacting to the weirdness around him. And there’s plenty of that, provided by Walken and Rockwell, the engine that drive this film. Rockwell’s Looney-Tunes energy and Walken’s consistently off-speed timing are a pure delight. Though the surprise has been spoiled by its inclusion in the film’s trailers, Walken still manages to get a big laugh just by saying the word “No.”

“Seven Psychopaths” isn’t perfect; its dogs occasionally get a little too shaggy. But it still bursts with existential oddness and bizarre comic energy, thanks to his wonderfully bright writing, darkly violent streak and a cast that just won’t quit. If those commercials look funny, wait until you see the movie.

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