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.