“I like it,” says Christopher Walken's Hans, one of a septet of psychos who pad out the latest from Irish playwright-cum-filmmaker Martin McDonagh. “It's got layers.” He's referring to the work-in-progress screenplay by Colin Farrell's Marty, an enduringly hungover Irish screenwriter adrift in Hollywood. As it stands, Marty's eagerly awaited next project exists only in abstraction: tossed-off psycho-killer backstories and shapeless commentary on violence and pacifism resembling little more than a rough-packed bale of unprocessed ideas. That film, too, is called Seven Psychopaths. Wink, nudge, groan. Layers, indeed.
In places, McDonagh's follow-up to In Bruges evokes Charlie Kaufmann's more methodically thought-through structuralist exercises. As in Adaptation. (or, in a somewhat different register, Synecdoche, New York), Seven Psychopaths is devised as a fabulist documentary on the process of the film itself, full of de rigueur pomo self-awareness. The thin, sitcom pilot of a plot follows Marty as he becomes embroiled in a dognapping scheme, courtesy of his short-fused best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), and his debonair partner in crime, Hans. After pinching an adorable Shih Tzu belonging to a bullet-headed L.A. crime lord, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), the trio cut out to the desert to await what custom dictates will be a climactic shootout, smack in front of a conspicuously placed “No Shooting” sign.
The cutesy, petty-criminals-out-of-their-depth setup serves as little more than trigger for McDonagh's scattershot riffs on Hollywood screenwriting—sometimes cutesy, sometimes out-of-their-depth, but mostly madly entertaining. Seven Psychopaths is productive when it inhabits the booze-fuzzy ether of the film-within-a-film being built in Marty's mind. McDonagh's facility for vacillating between scenes of pointed domestic unrest between Marty and girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish), imagined psychopath origin stories (like a former Viet Cong soldier stewing in a seedy motel room or Harry Dean Stanton as a craggy Quaker avenging his daughter's death), and more credibly ferocious passages may be the markers of a screenwriter (and director) all too eager to tip his hand. But the grating keener quality is, for the most part, kept in check by the validity of McDonagh's abundant talents. If Seven Psychopaths smacks a bit showoff-y in places, it's only because McDonagh has so much worth showing off. (A tone-setting prologue casting Michaels Pitt and Stuhlbarg as a couple of loquacious contract killers is funnier, and more dramatically effective, than the bulk of post-Tarantino pop cinema.)
If, in places, In Bruges's rat-a-tat dialogue and brooding, mood-lit chamber pieces betrayed its writer's pedigree, Seven Psychopaths feels wrested free from even the modest confines hemming in its predecessor, or its author. It's thoroughly cinematic, a collection of tricks—flashbacks, voiced-over fantasy sequences, flashbacks nestled in voiced-over fantasy sequences—that seem meaningfully medium-specific, as if McDonagh dutifully studied all sorts of Intro to Screenwriting texts and made a deliberate dog's breakfast of his homework assignment. Like Farrell's Marty, his on-screen surrogate, McDonagh is absolutely drunk on Hollywood.
The transition from subdued Brit-crime to full-bore Hollywood deconstruction, albeit still largely British funded, has considerably eased the theatricality dogging some of McDonagh's dialogue. Thanks, of course, to the top-drawer cast of exceptionally likeable (mostly) male leads. (Call it personal bias, but I find it difficult to dislike any film that packs Woody Harrelson, Željko Ivanek, and Kevin Corrigan into the same frame.) Farrell, Rockwell, Harrelson, Walken, Ivanek, even Tom Waits, playing a serial killer-hunting psychopath beholden to a pet bunny, imbue the film's chattier passages with a snappy comic realism.
McDonagh's toothy attack on the material—and on Hollywood in general, specifically on-screen violence as its own form of psychopathy—is by and large effective. Seven Psychopaths works dialectically to undermine, then very often reassert, its characters' original positions, especially Marty's idea of wanting to make a hyper-violent studio picture that offers itself up as a paean to nonviolence. Throughout the film, Farrell's doe-eyed drunk positions himself as a kind of conscientious objector to Hollywood, refusing to handle a firearm while Peckinpah-ish blasts of blood spatter shower him from all sides.
The implicit suggestion that McDonagh's own position is sensible—that violence, especially screen violence, is a matter of near-cosmic inevitability, and all you can really do is abandon yourself to its intensifying ebbs—reveals much of Seven Psychopaths's troubling cake-and-eat-it-too mentality. It's not that a violent movie can't critique violence, but that McDonagh would rather resolve this tension by tacking on a pacifist epilogue involving his vengeful Viet Cong killer, the only one of the film's seven psychopaths to remain entirely imagined, existing only conceptually, possessing no clear analogue within Seven Psychopaths itself.
Then again, it's hard to really buy that McDonagh is advocating, however cheekily, for a new cinema of nonaggression, given the care Seven Psychopaths takes to have it every which way at once. It's like the film is constantly playing devil's advocate with itself, blasting away any significant position it may pretend to take, like a triangulated Mexican standoff that keeps escalating into infinity. The incessant deployment of homophobic and misogynist slurs also needles, though not as much as McDonagh's reactionary tendency to provide them with requisite escape hatches: Hans critiques Marty's script for lacking strong female characters, as if it's McDonagh's mea culpa for his own movie's tightly coiled macho-centrism.
The film's textures, jokes, and performances are uniformly wonderful, but Seven Psychopaths is a case of the whole feeling oddly deficient when balanced against the sum of its parts. The elements McDonagh chaotically tosses may well add up, but the filmmaker seems too all too eager to show his work. When pared back, the film's multifarious layers of knowingness and self-reference bare a fuzzy, if not altogether absent, core.