The latest film by the writer-director of In Bruges may be the sharpest subversion of the crime genre since Pulp Fiction.
Two hitmen banter idly before fulfilling their contractual obligations:
"Was it Dillinger who got shot through the eyeball?"
"Moe Green got shot through the eyeball."
"I'm talking about in real life."
We've been here before, of course—the world of the pre-carnage colloquy, of ruminations on foot massages and the Royale with Cheese, the world of Pulp Fiction. Tarantino's breakthrough reimagining of the crime movie has inspired countless would-be successors, some rather good (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Go), others borderline unwatchable (A Life Less Ordinary, Lucky Number Slevin, Smokin' Aces).
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This time around, the killer conversationalists are played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt, and—unlike Jules and Vincent—neither one will be seen again after the movie's first scene. Rather, they are here to make an imprint, to lay down a marker, and then be wiped away, like the gunmen played by Jack Elam and Woody Strode in the opening of Sergio Leone's classic Western deconstruction, Once Upon a Time in the West. As in that case, the purpose here is not merely to nod at genre predecessors, but to rub them out and start anew.
It takes considerable moxie for a film to advertise its ambitions so baldly, and more still for it to rouse the ghost of Kurosawa with its very title, Seven Psychopaths. Yet remarkably, this latest outing by Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, best known to moviegoers for his 2008 picture In Bruges, lives up to its own hype. It may not be Pulp Fiction, but it is arguably the canniest—and almost certainly the wittiest—subversion of the crime genre to hit the big screen since.
As he did in In Bruges, Colin Farrell again stars for McDonagh, this time as Marty, an L.A. screenwriter with a mental block and a drinking problem who is working on a script entitled (of course) Seven Psychopaths. His best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), is an out-of-work actor and part-time dognapper who is desperate to collaborate on the project, if only the two can find a way to bridge their creative differences. Marty: "I don't want it to be violent. I want it to be life affirming." Billy: "Life-affirming, schmife-affirming. It's called Seven Fucking Psychopaths."
The movie's central plot involves the accidental theft, by Billy and his partner Hans (Christopher Walken), of a Shih Tzu belonging to a murderous crime boss (Woody Harrelson). But ultimately, it's the Billy-Marty dialectic—between low art and high, violence and pacifism, movie and movie critique—that provides the film with its narrative spine. Meta-story is stacked neatly atop meta-story as Marty's screenplay alternates between inspiring and incorporating the lethal antics taking place all around him: art imitating life imitating art. Particularly cunning are a series of neatly embedded vengeance fables in which assassins eat their own, Ouroboros-style: killers who target serial killers; killers who target child killers; and killers who target "only mid- to high-ranking members of the Italian-American crime syndicate or the Yakuza."
In addition to Pulp Fiction, McDonagh's film carries echoes of such genre demolitions as Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz and the Robert-Downey-Jr.-comeback-launcher Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But as sly as those movies were (in particular the latter), Seven Psychopaths laps them in self-conscious ingenuity. Each time it appears that McDonagh, who also directed, has written himself into a cul de sac, he off-roads the movie (sometimes literally) into fresh territory.
Farrell is amiably ineffectual as Marty, his wondrous, semaphore eyebrows delivering their best work since his last collaboration with McDonagh. Rockwell and Harrelson keep their respective manias in precise, simmering balance, and Tom Waits is quietly indelible as the most indisputably psychotic of the seven titular protagonists. Tucked in along the way are nice turns by Abbie Cornish, Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey Sidibe, and the suddenly ubiquitous Zeljko Ivanek.
But ultimately it's Walken, who starred on Broadway in McDonagh's 2010 play A Behanding in Spokane, whose mesmerizing deadpan steals the movie, scene by scene, line by incremental line. Late in the film, as corpses are accumulating inauspiciously, his Hans pigeonholes Marty: "You're the one that thought psychopaths were so interesting. They get tiresome after a while, don't you think?" Speaking for myself, and solely with regard to McDonagh's movie, let me counter: not in the least.