Seven Psychopaths is quite the anomaly. Watching it is like watching someone crash a jet plane on purpose. It’s awesome to look at, but you wonder why they’d intentionally derail something so massive. Seven Psychopaths isn’t “massive” in terms of scope or scale or budget, but the first half of the film does set the audience up for some sort of bombastic shoot-’em-up finale. The genius of the film is in how it manipulates you into thinking you’re going to get one thing and then giving you another. This goes all the way back to the marketing, which presented an goofball action-comedy of epic proportions. Seven Psychopaths isn’t that movie. It doesn’t want to be that movie. But it wants you to think that it is, at least for a while.
Seven Psychopaths is a great meta-commentary on both itself and on the genre it inhabits. It is, in its own way, a critique of the dozens of Tarantino ripoffs we’ve seen in the last two decades. But as we all should know, the best way to criticize something is pretend to be it. Seven Psychopaths is to the movies it mocks as Stephen Colbert is to Fox News. It knows that its ideas, its messages, and its characters, are flat and uninspired. That’s the point.
Take, for example, a scene halfway through the film. Marty (Colin Farrell) is talking about the screenplay he’s writing, called “Seven Psychopaths”. This screenplay is a major presence in the movie, and we get cuts of the story Marty’s telling throughout. We’ll get to why that’s significant later. Anyway, Marty, Billy (Sam Rockwell), and Hans (Christopher Walken) are all in the car, driving to escape the wrath of the mob boss they’ve wronged (Woody Harrelson). Marty starts talking about how he wants his movie to be “different” from what people expect of it. He wants the first half to be the perfect setup for a bloody, slam-bang revenge flick, and then the second half to just have the main characters pitch a tent in the desert and talk about life. And lo and behold, that’s exactly what our heroes do, right down to the tent. They stay out in the desert and talk for nearly the entire rest of the film. This is a hilariously brave decision on the part of the filmmakers, and they manage to hold onto the joke for a long time before chickening out and delivering a climax with a small amount of action. That’s dedication to your idea right there.
There are lots of moments similar to this throughout the film. That’s all fine and good, but does it have any meaning beyond toying with the audience? Some might say no, but I disagree. Seven Psychopaths is all about blurring the line between fantasy and reality. A character in Marty’s movie is based on a story Billy told him. We learn later that the story was true, and the character is someone the audience (and Marty) already knows. In fact, in Hans’ final monologue, he describes an idea he has for Marty’s movie, which, without spoilers, involves a character’s fantasy influencing and informing his real-life decisions. At first, I thought this scene was a little self-indulgent, but as I thought about it I realized how well it fit into the theme of the movie.
I’ve heard some people argue that this meta-commentary is just an attempt for the movie to hang lanterns on its failings, but I see it differently. I think that the “failings” were intentionally included to make a point about storytelling. Now, I could be crazy and none of this was intentional. Call me biased, but I’m going with the “not crazy” option.
The lead trio in this film is made up of three of my favorite actors. Farrell, Rockwell, and Walken are some of the finest comedic actors working. However, none of them knock this material out of the park like they really should. Farrell is great, playing the character as not too understated, but not too over-the-top either. Rockwell turned in a bizarre performance, turning from affably kooky to violently nutso on a dime. This should be him right in his element, but I didn’t really buy his sudden turn into a…well, a psychopath. I was more surprised by it than I probably should have been. As for Walken, I don’t know what to say. He’s one of those guys for whom impressions are not exaggerations. You know how people joke about the way he talks? That’s actually how he talks. But he turned his Walken-ness up to eleven and broke off the knob in this one. He doesn’t bring the gravitas to the role that he could, though.
So, that’s Seven Psychopaths. Should you see it? Well, if you’re a film fan, I’d say absolutely. It satirizes a genre we’re all familiar with in a sly, subtle way. This is the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead of the day. It’s hasn’t been since that great film that Hollywood has turned out a true absurdist comedy. I welcome the return of the genre with open arms.