If it weren’t for the fact that writer/director Martin McDonagh is every bit as handsome as his favorite leading man, you’d think he was going down the Woody Allen vanity route, casting Colin Farrell as his obvious surrogate—a screenwriter named Marty M—in his second feature film, Seven Psychopaths. Fellow Irishman Farrell was also the star of McDonagh’s 2008 sleeper hit In Bruges, which also wove its story around a band of incompetent low-level criminals who accidentally get into the crosshairs of a big time criminal sociopath, played very winningly in that first film by a rewardingly cast-against-type Hugh Grant.
The tone of Psychopaths feels very much the same as Bruges in that Farrell again plays a likable fuck-up (this time an alcoholic screenwriter who is finding it hard to produce a follow-up to his first success) whose loser friend Billy (Sam Rockwell, playing very much TO type here) makes his living through a sloppy dog kidnapping operation that he runs with his mysterious elderly pal Hans (Christopher Walken). Unfortunately, Billy nabs a cute little Shih Tzu who happens to be the darling of his owner, mafia overlord Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), and thus begins the chase. A shaggy dog story, indeed.
But, as Hans points out, this is a story with “layers.” Many layers. It’s not just the meta factor of the subject of the screenplay being the screenwriter, à la Barton Fink or Adaptation, there’s also the fact that within the first five minutes Marty rails against writing yet another movie about men rampaging around with a bunch of guns—and yet, of course, this is exactly the movie we’re watching.
Psychopaths opens with an assassination-gone-wrong and keeps going from there. Not only that, this is a movie about storytelling. Each major character spins several outrageous tales that play out vividly onscreen, only to be amended or revised in subsequent tellings. There’s also a visitation by a very strange guest storyteller, played by a bunny-fondling Tom Waits. And the central tale, about a Quaker Psycho, changes hands from one character to another, and changes meaning each time.
Meanwhile, there are multiple serial killers, lots of dogs, a Vietnamese priest with a major grudge, that Quaker Psycho, guns and shooting galore, gratuitous naked boobs, and a character with a major death wish. The film begins on a gorgeous, sun-flooded LA and ends at the even more picturesque Joshua Tree. In other words, this is the movie that all three of its protagonists wish it to be—the shoot ’em up to end all shoot ’em ups, an intellectual and spiritual puzzle, and “lots of talking in the desert.” If it feels, on occasion, that with all the inside jokes and winks and many layers of meta, McDonagh and his actors are having even more fun than we are, that doesn’t mean that Seven Psychopaths isn’t a very satisfying good time for the viewers too.