We have arrived at my August review of a movie recommended courtesy of Steve at 1001plus. This one is a film that I was interested in when it came to DVD, but for whatever reason I never happened to get around to watching it. When I saw it among the twelve films he gave to me I was happy because now it gave me an excuse to go back and watch it. What I found was a film that is a cross between Charlie Kaufman’s/Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) and Quentin Tarantino’s, well, pick any Tarantino movie. While this may seem to be a strange combination it works well enough onscreen to make me like the movie.
Right off the bat the film screams “Tarantino!” with two hitmen having a conversation about a somewhat off-kilter subject while waiting for their target to come along. They are played by Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg. While they are talking a masked man walks up behind them and shoots them both in the head. He then leaves two playing cards – each the Jack of Diamonds – with the bodies. On the screen we see the words “Psychopath #1” appear.
What follows is a film about a screenplay that’s being written, that just happens to mirror the film we are watching (hello, Adaptation.) We have no context yet for this first scene. Is it fiction, reality (within the movie), or something in the screenplay (within the movie)? In addition, Pitt and Stuhlbarg are familiar faces, so seeing them have just this single scene also establishes that no one in the film may be safe. In fact, they are only two of several familiar faces that show up in small roles during the film. I didn’t understand why or how this was happening until after I got done watching it and was looking into the movie for more info. More on this in a bit.
The main characters are a screenwriter named Marty (Colin Farrell), his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), Billy’s partner in small crime Hans (Christopher Walken), and a big crime boss named Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Marty is trying to write a screenplay, but all he has is a title – Seven Psychopaths – and the concept that one of them will be a pacifist Buddhist. Billy is befuddled at how exactly a pacifist psychopath would work and he offers (for what appears to be the umpteenth time) to co-write the screenplay with Marty. Marty’s not thrilled with this idea. Billy tries to help by suggesting Marty write about the Jack o’Diamonds killer that’s been in the papers (hello context for the first scene).
Billy makes a living by stealing dogs from the local dog park, holding them for a few days, and then teaming with Hans to return the dogs for the reward. As luck would have it, one day Billy steals the dog of Charlie. Charlie loves his dog way, WAY too much. “Scorched earth” might be the best description of his approach to getting the dog back. He shoots the dog walker (Oscar nominee Gadbourey Sidibe – another of the familiar faces in a small role) even after learning that someone is apparently going around and stealing dogs and therefore it wasn’t really her fault. Yes, Charlie is another of the seven. As it turns out the two hitmen killed in the opening were his men.
During the course of the film we are introduced to all seven of the psychopaths. They are a combination of real (in the movie) people, fictional people, and fictional stories about real (in the movie) people. It wasn’t very hard to guess who the Jack o’Diamonds killer was, but that didn’t detract from the movie.
Billy continues to try to help Marty come up with ideas for the screenplay. He places a personal ad asking for psychos to come tell their stories. This leads to Tom Waits showing up – another of the familiar faces in small roles. Others include Harry Dean Stanton, who appears in one of the stories; Abbie Cornish as Marty’s girlfriend; Kevin Corrigan as a henchman of Charlie; and Olga Kurylenko as Charlie’s girlfriend.
At one point Marty, Billy, and Hans, still with Charlie’s dog, all end up in a moving car hiding from Charlie. They are all brainstorming on the Seven Psychopaths screenplay and Marty all of a sudden starts talking about completely changing up the approach. Maybe have the opening be a bunch of scenes setting the stage for a big revenge flick but then have the principals just drive off into the desert and talk for the second half of the film. As he is suggesting this it’s about halfway through the movie and the car they are in is shown driving into the desert.
What follows is almost the reverse of Adaptation which starts out more cerebral, but then changes into more of an action film like Charlie Kaufman’s “brother” wants it to be. Seven Psychopaths started out with several people getting killed, but no revenge for it (Marty’s approach), but Billy wants there to be a huge, guns blazing showdown in a cemetery. They even pass some rocks in the desert which Billy points out would be the perfect place for a shootout. If you ask the question, “How badly does Billy want to see his movie ending?” the answer would be “very much indeed.”
As you can tell this is a very meta movie, with stories within the screenplay that are mirrored in the movie, and vice-versa. There’s also a scene early the closing credits that calls back to something discussed early on in the movie.
I’ve often written about how my expectations, either good or bad, can affect how I perceive a film. I had no expectations going into this, other than hoping to like it, but I realized afterwards that had I known a little more about it I might have seen it quite differently. While looking on IMDB I discovered that it was written and directed by Martin McDonough. If that name’s not familiar to you, he’s the person who wrote and directed In Bruges (2008) – a great movie. I now understood how he could get several people to show up in much smaller roles than usual – it was to be able to be in his follow-up to In Bruges.
This got me thinking, though. I would consider In Bruges to be a much better movie than Seven Psychopaths, so if I knew this connection to it going in would I have been disappointed with Seven Psychopaths? On the other hand, there were a couple of times watching the movie where I wasn’t giving “the writer” much credit because this appeared to be ripping off both Tarantino and Kaufman. If I knew it was McDonough would I have not been so hard on the writing and therefore liked the film more? I’ve given both possibilities some thought and the honest answer is “I don’t know.” For better or for worse, my experience with Seven Psychopaths is what it is.
And that experience is a positive one. I was amused at some points – not laugh out loud funny, but chuckles. I tend to like meta movies and this is probably the closest I’ve seen someone else come to doing a screenplay within the movie that by and large is the movie since Adaptation. If all of this sounds interesting then I definitely recommend you give it a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Postscript – there is a minor spoiler that follows regarding the fate of Charlie’s dog, but I wanted to mention another meta moment that I found out afterwards was inspired both by the interference of the studio, and by people’s hypocrisy.
In Billy’s telling of how he thinks the screenplay should end one of the people in the massive shootout is holding a rabbit because that’s how we saw the real person earlier in the movie. In this imagined shootout the man dies, but Billy pauses and says that they have to show that the bunny lives – that you can’t shoot animals in a movie, only women.
I found out afterwards this was a snide jab at the studio because McDonough had originally had the dog dying in the movie, but the studio told him he couldn’t do that because audiences wouldn’t accept that. And as much as I like to point out the bullshit interference of studios I can’t say that they are wrong in this case. People are by and large hypocrites when it comes to violence in films. (And yes, I’m including myself in this.) You can show piles of people, including women, dying horrible deaths, including just getting shot in the head like Seven Psychopaths does, but if you show one single cute fuzzy animal getting killed people will go ballistic, writing spit-flecked letters of condemnation to the filmmakers.