In 2008, playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh pulled off a nifty directorial trick: He made a crime comedy with soul. There aren't too many of those around—not in the post-Pulp Fiction era, anyway. Most are content to just jerk themselves off with their own genre, self-pleasuring in a froth of gratuitous blood and heavy-meta humor. But In Bruges, McDonagh's debut feature, distinguished itself not only with a unique European setting but by managing to pull moments of both stark poignancy and pants-pissing hilarity from the same deep, dark well of humanity. Starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as hitmen hiding out in "the best-preserved medieval city in Belgium," after a botched job that left a child dead, it's a film about remorse among murderers, which also involves a coke-addled dwarf, a temperamental mob boss, and such turns of phrase as, "Stop whining, you big gay baby." It's one of the most distinctive movies of the last few years.
Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh's follow-up, is also a crime comedy, but it's not at all the same film. It is, in a lot of ways, the exact movie In Bruges wasn't. It is highly aware of its own existence: Farrell's character here is a creatively blocked, alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter, not coincidentally named Martin, wrestling with how to turn an unwritten script prematurely titled Seven Psychopaths into a "life-affirming" work of art. It's also grisly—death comes via chainsaw, hacksaw, self-immolation and straight razor—and not particularly concerned with emotional complexity. In short, it's a lot like all those other post-Pulp Fiction crime comedies where the criminals talk incessantly about movies while the movie talks incessantly about itself.
And yet, it works. Maybe not to the degree of In Bruges, which truly seemed new and special. But McDonagh would have to fail pretty terribly to screw up a picture starring Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell as high-profile dognappers, Woody Harrelson as a Shih Tzu-loving gangster, and Tom Waits as a vigilante serial killer with a thing for white rabbits.
Intrigued? You should be. McDonagh has succeeded in another cinematic sleight of hand: He's made a movie about the movie you're watching that doesn't get in the way of the actual movie. To put it another way, McDonagh doesn't allow his cleverness to trip up the story, or his actors. Through two films now, McDonagh has displayed a rare skill as a writer-director, producing movies that bear the clear stamp of their creator but aren't overwhelmed by his personality. His dialogue snaps as much as Quentin Tarantino's, except it doesn't sound like it's all coming from the same overcaffeinated video store clerk.
As such, Seven Psychopaths gets by on its scenery-masticating performances. In particular, Rockwell chomps down on the role of Martin's best friend, Billy, a delightfully deluded wannabe screenwriter making a living by abducting rich people's dogs and then returning them for the reward money. It's a charmingly deranged performance that benefits from the script's digressive nature: Billy's pitch for Martin's screenplay—ending with an over-the-top shootout at a cemetery—is the film's most gorily hilarious moment. As a straight man among nutcases, Farrell, much as in In Bruges, uses his big, brown Irish eyes to convey reservoirs of vulnerable sympathy. Harrelson and Waits make the most of limited screen time. And Walken is extra Walken-y. Playing a deeply religious pacifist with a cancer-stricken wife and shadowy past, he's the heart of Seven Psychopaths—despite the fact McDonagh seemingly went with his most self-parodic line readings.
No, Seven Psychopathsâthe movie, not the movie within the movieâis not a âlife-affirmingâ work of art. Itâs simply crazy fun.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: Seven Psychopaths is rated R. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, City Center, Evergreen Parkway and Fox Tower.