Martin McDonagh goes meta in his latest film. 'Seven Psychopaths' stars Colin Farrell as Marty, a screenwriter trying to finish a script called, you guessed it, 'Seven Psychopaths'. The big problem Marty runs into in this Adaptation-like setting is that his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who along with partner Hans (Christopher Walken) earns a living kidnapping dogs in order to get a reward when he returns them to his owners, has kidnapped the dog of murderous psychotic gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson).
McDonagh has made a name of himself on the stage by writing a series of darkly comedic and extremely violent plays. 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore', 'The Beauty Queen of Lenane' and 'The Pillowman', which I consider his masterpiece, are examples of his particular style. He jumped from stage to screen in 2008, with a terrific little movie called 'In Bruges'. Also starring Colin Farrell, that film had him play an assassin tormented by his own guilt who is sent to spend some time in the impossibly boring city of Bruges. The film, like the plays before it and 'Seven Psychopaths' was also very violent.
There seems to be some of the overwhelming guilt Farrell's character feels in 'In Bruges' in McDonagh himself, who basically writes himself as the protagonist of 'Seven Psychopaths'. Marty and the other characters spend most of the movie talking about his screenplay. Marty in particular seems to be displeased about writing violent movies starring gangsters all the time. He wants something different, something life assuring. At one point he is asked whether he believes in heaven. He responds even though he writes about heaven and hell in his movies, he doesn't really know what he believes in.
Violence in entertainment is one of the most complex topics for me and I have had lengthy discussions about it. I am generally against violence, but I also enjoy movies that are unashamedly violent without the violence necessarily informing the character or the story. Quentin Tarantino's 'Kill Bill', for example, seems, on a level, to have been made just to showcase the violence it so cartoonishly presents. Watching 'Seven Psychopaths', it seems like McDonagh has felt similarly about the work he's done in the past. He has to justify his use of violence and his writing about such dark and macabre themes in such a hilarious fashion. It is pretty clear to me watching the movie and understanding its references to McDonagh's work itself that the making of 'Seven Psychopaths' must have been a largely therapeutic enterprise.
It feels like in order to maintain his sanity and keep writing, McDonagh had to make a film in which he put himself in the middle of a situation like the ones he writes about. It is largely on-screen psychoanalysis and I'm all for that. One of the greatest films of the past decade, Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood', also felt to me like a way of the director to express something he felt like he just had to shout out to the world. Similarly, Woody Allen, has made a career out of presenting versions of himself and his thoughts in almost every single one of his movies and Louis C.K. is doing the same and having outstanding results on his television show 'Louie'. There is, however, something that doesn't quite work for me in 'Seven Psychopaths'.
McDonagh is an incredibly talented writer, one of the best around, and so his script is funny and very well written as far as structure and character are concerned. Actually, 'Seven Psychopaths' is an overall very well executed film and features some amazing performances (especially from Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken). The thing is that while it says a lot about Martin McDonagh, it doesn't feel like it is really saying anything to us. Its views on movie violence and McDonagh's ideas end up not being exactly clear by the end. Like Marty's character, it seems like McDonagh has found catharsis in this movie, but while the audience might enjoy it, they will not.