Suggesting a frantic, occasionally enjoyable reimagining of Spike Jonze’s brilliant Adaptation. as a vintage Guy Ritchie joint, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths would be easy enough to dismiss as late to the party if it weren’t also so confused and frustratingly sloppy on its own terms. Indulging in a variety of meta-movie trappings meant to highlight the trials of artistic growth, McDonagh’s second feature employs Colin Farrell’s Marty, a neglectful, alcoholic screenwriter, as a clear proxy for the filmmaker, who had a breakout hit with his acclaimed 2008 directorial debut, In Bruges. But whereas In Bruges offered cheap, easily disposable genre hijinks, to say nothing of Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson, Seven Psychopaths burdens itself with half-hearted self-awareness, mutating a toothless crime farce into a scatterbrained calamity.
McDonagh’s would-be self-excoriation is palpable from the film’s opening sequence, as two chummy assassins (Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) leisurely discuss their macabre profession, only to have their brains blown out by a masked assailant. Subsequently marked as “Psychopath No. 1,” the killer turns out to be Billy (Sam Rockwell), a violent lunatic who also happens to be Marty’s best friend. When Marty isn’t getting wasted or neglecting his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), he attempts to get inspired for his new screenplay (itself titled Seven Psychopaths), and Billy is more than happy to provide some fuel, whether through the newspaper ad that offers an open call to all local psychopaths or by involving Marty in the “dog-borrowing” scam that he cooked up with Hans (Christopher Walken).
Further detailed via his cancer-ridden wife (Linda Bright Clay), devout Catholicism, and throat-slitting scar, Hans is eventually revealed as the film’s most fully realized and empathetic character, but whatever amount of heart Walken’s performance provides is lost in the film’s blandly cynical sprawl. Marty and Billy find themselves on the wrong side of gangster Costello (Woody Harrelson) when Billy accidentally nabs his beloved Shih Tzu and not so accidentally starts fucking his model girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko). The setup is familiar, as is the nasty language, gallows humor, and gushy bloodshed, but as the film is essentially about its own scripting and all these tired elements are pseudo-scrutinized by the characters themselves, McDonagh purports to be making a personal film about the frustrations of leaving cheap thrills behind to create something approaching “art.”
Indeed, Seven Psychopaths feigns to offer artistic self-effacement on par with Hong Sang-soo, but this noble pursuit becomes just another trick in McDonagh’s bag. Marty’s alcoholism and pomposity remain entirely unexplored, and as compared to Billy and Hans, he’s woefully underdeveloped. And the suggested regret or exhaustion felt by McDonagh in reference to his penchant for ultra-violence feels egregiously false, as the director makes it blatantly clear that he in fact thinks being a homicidal maniac is still thoroughly bad-ass. The completely pointless murder of Kurylenko’s character is depicted as so awesome that it garners the musical accompaniment of the Walkmen’s propulsive, anthemic “Angela Surf City.”
The film is built as an argument between two sides of McDonagh: Rockwell’s kill-happy asshole and Farrell’s moralistic twit. In reality, the writer-director treats moral awareness and investigation as dull, fruitless, and burdensome in the face of the crazed fun of mindless wreckage, guts, and pain, making it no more or less witty and involving than Michael Bay’s ouevre. And yet, as the film ends, McDonagh condescends to impart the revelation that violent films can end in a humanistic way, after spending the abundance of the film luxuriating in the idea that the only thing more fun than senselessly murdering people is senselessly murdering people under the guise of some twisty philosophy.
Not entirely surprisingly, McDonagh never puts himself on the line. It would be easy enough to blame the frustration the film causes on the fact that it at least appears to be a film about being frustrated, but really McDonagh is just disguising cowardly defeatism as raging against the machine. The film takes its elements of self-awareness as given, immediate profundity, carrying itself as something at once more responsible, rebellious, and intelligent than a genre picture. The attitude the film exudes is that unless you shoehorn a message in at the end, it’s impossible (or just really, really hard) to interweave a personal identity and moralism into genre, which would have been an interesting argument before John Ford and Fritz Lang started making pictures. And if the consensus is that films like that can’t be made anymore, it’s easy enough to point to any number of recent films, from Rian Johnson’s Looper to Ti West’s The Innkeepers, that prove that wrong and oust Seven Psychopaths as simply pretentious, lazy, and dumb. And the only thing worse than a stupid movie is a stupid movie laboring under the guise of some twisty philosophy.
Pardon the pun, but Sony pulls out the big guns for the Blu-ray transfer of Seven Psychopaths. Visually, the film stands with the very best Blu-ray releases Sony has distributed, boasting stunning clarity in terms of textures, skin tones, and colors. The pale yellow's of Hans's wife's hospital room; the baby-blue underwear Olga Kurylenko sports around Sam Rockwell; even the endless blood spurts and the dull modern designs of Marty's apartment look spectacular. Black levels are good and inky and there isn't a single sign of digital manipulation. The audio is just as impressive, keeping the dialogue clear and crisp out front and handling the oft-crowded sonic landscape deftly. An armada of sound effects, Carter Burwell's admirably multifaceted score, and indie-rock tunes like "Angela Surf City" are mixed and balanced beautifully in the back.
When you combine the running time of all the extras in this release, it totals at a little over 10 minutes, which isn't much for a film that portends to be about artistic frustration and maturity. Tellingly, the featurettes focus mainly on the actors and their relationship to their characters and with Martin McDonagh. Still, there isn't a single nugget of useful or even enjoyable information given here, but if you like cats, there's a joke trailer where the cast is replaced with felines. Okay then.
Martin McDonagh's blood-drenched, dully self-referential hodgepodge of a crime film looks great with Sony's extraordinary A/V transfer, but the package offers only crumbs in the extras department.