Every once in a while a movie comes along that’s so criminally overlooked, you just want to scream from the rooftops for everyone to go see it. I saw Seven Psychopaths last September simply because I had a two-for-one admission coupon. It turned out to be one of the best times I had in a movie theater all year. I’m not sure why this unpredictable, outrageously funny, savagely violent, and unexpectedly moving film didn’t find an audience, but I hope that will change with its Blu-ray release. Academy Award-winning writer-director Martin McDonagh’s second feature film (after 2008’s In Bruges) is an audacious meditation on the creative process itself.
Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter hampered by a bad case of writer’s block. He has a title, “Seven Psychopaths” (yes, this is a meta-movie to the max), and that’s about it. He’s trying to come up with the seven crazies to populate his story, but desperately wants to avoid well-worn clichés. His friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) has a few novel ideas, but Marty doesn’t take him all that seriously as a potential writing partner. Without consulting Marty first, Billy takes out an ad in the paper calling for interesting psychos to offer up their personal stories for consideration in the screenplay. Initially angered, Marty realizes the strategy just might work after Zachariah Rigby (Tom Waits) answers the ad and lays a suitably crazy but surprisingly coherent story on him.
Meanwhile, Billy runs a dognapping business with his partner Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken). They covertly snatch unsuspecting dog walkers’ pooches and hold them until reward notices are posted. Hans’ uses the money to help his wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay) with her on-going cancer treatment. They inadvertently nab a Shih Tzu from the wrong guy, a crime boss named Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson). Elaborating on how all these characters interact with each other would rob the film of its surprises. McDonagh has great fun playing with the conventions of storytelling, essentially depicting Marty as experiencing much of what becomes his screenplay as the plot unfolds. There are several vignettes woven into the overall narrative that are strong enough to stand on their own as short films.
All the roles, big and small, are exceedingly well cast and the performances are a large part of why the movie stands up to repeat viewings. Colin Farrell is the relatively mild mannered straight man, the calm at the center of the storm. Woody Harrelson taps into a menace that makes for an effective contrast with his dog-loving sensibilities. The real loose cannon of the bunch is Sam Rockwell, who infuses a playful glee in nearly all his line readings (and I love that Billy’s apparently a fan of Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics—he not only has a poster of the Carrot hanging in his place, but also a figure on his desk). Standing above them all, however, is Christopher Walken. Far lesser performances have received Oscar recognition. Rather than wallowing in self-parody as he sometimes has in recent years, Walken digs in deep, making Hans the wounded soul of the movie.
It’s far from perfect, as McDonagh seems to lose his footing about an hour in when he sends Marty, Billy, and Hans to the desert. The pace slows and the meta aspects begin to reach self-indulgent levels as the unlikely trio of friends begin discussing how the movie, or rather Marty’s movie, should end. I’ve never been much of a fan of this sort of self-aware plotting as it can come across as a cop out, as in, “I don’t know where to take this story, I’ve painted myself into a corner, so I’ll just try to cleverly subvert conventions as a substitute for actually thinking the story through.” Yes, Seven Psychopaths stumbles a bit, but McDonagh manages to recover with another socko twist, this one involving a Vietnamese Priest (Long Nguyen) introduced earlier. It seems McDonagh set out to continuously tweak audience expectations and he never fails to add what Hans calls “layers” to his funhouse contraption of a story.
Seven Psychopaths’s 1080p transfer, framed at 2.40:1, offers a remarkably strong image. Ben Davis’ 35mm cinematography is displayed with all the detail one hopes for in a high definition presentation. The desert scenes in the second half—dominated by barren, beige landscapes and cloudless, blue skies—look outstanding, with slightly oversaturated colors and perfect contrast levels. For a film with such vivid performances, it’s vital that we see every emotional nuance on the actors’ faces. This transfer doesn’t disappoint, allowing us to see every twitch in Walken’s lined face. An absolutely terrific visual experience.
Get ready to feel the force of the gunshots that punctuate much of the film. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix delivers palpable gunfire, with nice LFE support. There are a few loud explosions that also roar with satisfying impact. Farrell’s occasional voiceover narration has a nice full presence. This isn’t a super active soundtrack, but all the elements are well balanced.
I haven’t been so disappointed in a lack of supplemental material in a long time. No deleted scenes, commentary, or substantial interviews. The four included featurettes total less than eight minutes combined. In fact, “featurette” isn’t even an accurate description—these are just brief promos that I assume were used on the web or something. “Seven Psychocats” is the film’s trailer, only with cats instead of people and “Layers” is a montage of dialogue clips set to a beat. Honestly none of this stuff adds any value to the release (though the “Psychocats” clip is at least smile-inducing). There’s also a redemption code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy.
While Seven Psychopaths may ultimately be nothing more than a confection—a smorgasbord of inventive writing and acting without much depth—sometimes that’s more than enough to make an invigoratingly entertaining movie.