Seven Psychopaths is a film written and directed by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. It’s his second film; the first, In Bruges starred Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two hitmen, in disgrace from the mob, on a forced leave of absence in Bruges. It was profane, violent, and wonderfully human, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Seven Psychopaths is about an Irish writer named Marty (Farrell), who has sold a screenplay based on that title, but finds himself unable to finish writing it. The film could therefore be seen as an exploration of a writer’s process. According to this reading of the film, Marty is the only actual character; the others merely represent projections of his own personality as he writes.
Marty has a close friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), an actor, who helps him write his Seven Psychopaths screenplay. Billy shows him a news story, for example, about the Jack of Diamonds killer, a masked assassin who only kills high ranking Mafiosi, or Yakuzi. So the Jack of Diamonds killer becomes one of the Seven Psychopaths of the story. Billy also tells him the story of a Quaker psychopath (Harry Dean Stanton), committed to non-violence, who haunts his daughter’s killer, driving him to suicide: the Second Psychopath. Billy even puts an ad in the Hollywood Reporter, inviting other psychopaths to visit Marty, and tell their stories. One who does is Zachariah (Tom Waits), who tells of his life with his girlfriend, Maggie (Amanda Mason Warren), who together travel the country killing serial killers–two more psychopaths for the screenplay. Billy helps Marty shape the story of a Vietnamese killer (Long Nguyen), who seeks retribution for the murder of his family in My Lai. In the end, Billy turns out to be the source for all seven of the psychopaths in the screenplay.
Billy makes a living as a dognapper, working with his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken). Billy steals people’s dogs, waits until a reward is offered, and then Hans (who is elderly and kind) returns the dog and collects the reward. But their enterprise is endangered when they kidnap Bonnie, a ShihTzu owned by a violent and vicious mobster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson). A lot of the movie involves conversations between Billy, Marty and Hans, working out the details of Marty’s screenplay while waiting for Charlie to either find and kill them, or pay a ransom for Bonnie’s return. Hans is a Christian, deeply in love with his wife, Myra (Linda Bright Clay) who is in the hospital undergoing treatment for cancer. Charlie murders her, but Hans is strangely unaffected; so certain in his faith that her death doesn’t seem to trouble him. So the film could be seen as a meditation on friendship, and also on religious faith. As troubled and dangerous as Billy is, we sense that Hans genuinely does love him, and that Marty, seeing that love, comes to a new understanding of Billy’s issues, and of friendship itself. So the horrendously violent final confrontation, the bloody showdown. in which all the psychopaths fight to the death against Charlie and his men, which Billy thinks should be the final scene of Marty’s movie, is treated by Hans with some compassion. He gets Billy’s need for that kind of overt heroism, and forgives him for it. It’s a ludicrously over-the-top scene, comically brutal and not meant to be taken seriously, but somehow, it leads to . . . forgiveness and atonement.
It’s a film about filmmaking, a film about the process of working out a story. It borrows mostly from Quentin Tarantino and also from Charlie Kaufman, especially from Spike Jonze’s film Adaptation, written by Kaufman, based on Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief. in Adaptation, Nicolas Cage plays both Kaufman, and Kaufman’s much less talented brother Donald, who does not exist, but without whom Kaufman could not write. Tarantino is credited as having co-written Pulp Fiction with Roger Avary, but disputes how much of the story Avary should be credited with. So Seven Psychopaths could be an exploration of the writer/writing partner relationship.
To say that the film is meta-cinematic isn’t terribly helpful. Meta-cinema is a critical term referring to films that are aware that they’re films. Example: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Matthew Broderick talking to the camera. Well, to say that the film is meta-cinematic is far less interesting than to unpack the reasons for it. In Seven Psychopaths, for example, Walken as Hans, at one point, criticizes the screenplay for not having any rounded or interesting female characters. You may have heard of the Bechdel test. Alison Bechdel authored this test; films violate it if they never include a scene in which two female characters converse together about anything other then men. It occurred to me that Seven Psychopaths violates the Bechdel rule–not that that’s terribly unusual–but that it’s also aware of it, that Walken’s dialogue is pointing it out, calling attention to it, and criticizing it. In fact, the female parts in this film are pretty sparse, but they’re far from uninteresting. There are no fewer than six women characters in the film that are different and unusual and who appear in tremendously interesting scenes. But there are never any scenes in which two women converse. I think that McDonagh does something interesting here; offers a feminist critique of his own film, but not to defend himself, instead to comment on the essentially shallow sexism of his own characters.
Anyway, the film does this, comments on itself as a film, calls attention to its own film antecedents, but not just to be post-modern and clever and awesomely meta. I think he’s also commenting on how film shapes our attitudes, how film affects the narratives we create about ourselves, the way film shapes our own reality. That whole ‘real vs. movie real’ debate is central to the middle third of the film, the long scenes in which these three men try to shape a screenplay that turns out to be about them, especially about Billy. As Hans points out, ‘after awhile, psychopaths aren’t all that interesting anymore.’ And Billy, the most psychopathic character in the film, only becomes interesting when he stops behaving psychopathically.
This is why the film seems to build in deliberate inconsistencies; nothing so crass as, say, deliberate continuity errors, but what may look like mistakes if they weren’t so obviously deliberate. One example involves Charlie. He comes to see Billy, to get his dog back, and Billy shoots him in the back. It looks like Billy’s killed him. But then we see that Charlie’s still alive. Shortly thereafter, Charlie seems quite a bit better. A short time later, he growls ‘it’s only a flesh wound’ and acts completely unhurt. It’s not bad screenwriting; rather it seems like the sorts of changes you make as you work out the details of a first screenplay draft.
It’s a shoot ’em up, a violent film about the Mob, and Mob violence, and assassins and hit men and kidnappers and murder and death. It’s a film about moments of unexpected grace, about brief and unanticipated vulnerabilities, about love and tenderness and compassion among people who wouldn’t seem to have those qualities. It’s a film about guys’ stupid macho fantasies, and what screw-ups guys can be. It’s a film about faith. It’s a film about how, in a violent and fallen world, a moment of non-violent protest, a moment of Buddhist self-abnegation, can be the only truth, the only way forward. It’s a film about peace. It’s a film about the cliched ways guys think about women, and how actual real women don’t fit into those categories at all, pretty much ever. It’s the best acted film I’ve seen in ages. It’s a film about seven psychopaths, or maybe eight, or maybe none, and how damaged we humans all are, and especially about how close to psychopathy film has driven us. It’s the weirdest film I’ve seen this year. It’s also the best film, by far.