REVIEW: A blocked writer encounters big trouble as he seeks to finish a psycho-killer screenplay with an uplifting message.
Every so often -- not very often, at that -- you see a movie that leaves you stumbling out of the theater in a state of giddy, elated vertigo. That's what you get from "Seven Psychopaths," a howlingly funny Los Angeles crime farce overstuffed with flaky comedy, gore, idiosyncrasy, genius dialogue, wild cameo performances and an embarrassment of stars.
Any film where you can watch Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken toss the ball around can't help but be intensely likable. When it's written and directed by the absurdly gifted Martin McDonagh ("In Bruges"), it approaches hipster nirvana. I put this alongside "Reservoir Dogs" and "The Usual Suspects" as one of the all-time great ensemble crime comedies.
Farrell plays Martin, a blocked screenwriter. He's past deadline on his big project, which he sold on the basis of the title, "Seven Psychopaths." He has no plot, only one psychopath, and the Sisyphean goal of making a psycho-killer movie with an uplifting pacifist moral.
No wonder he procrastinates with his best drinking buddy, Billy (Rockwell), an unemployed actor. Billy is a manic Jack-in-the-box lunatic, but he's full of suggestions for the screenplay (many of which are riffs on generic multiplex nonsense we feel like we've seen before).
Billy provides grist for Martin's story when he sweeps him into the dog-kidnapping racket that he runs with Hans (Walken), a nice old guy whose honest demeanor compels the owners to give him a big cash reward when he returns their "lost" pets.
After they make the mistake of scooping up a Shih Tzu belonging to trigger-happy mob boss Charlie Costello (Harrelson), Martin is up to his neck in inspiration. All he has to do is not get himself killed in the course of his research.
McDonagh knows when to let a scene digress and when to cut it short with a snap. Here he's in an expansive mood, introducing a wealth of off-kilter characters (the film's cameos are priceless) and letting them bounce off one another.
He takes the stock parts of genre crime movies and twists them like Silly Putty. These characters just won't "behave." Walken has a wonderful scene when a gunman tells him to put his hands up. He nonchalantly says "No." Flummoxed, the triggerman can't figure out how to deal with this nut.
When Billy spins out his take on what Martin's screenplay should become -- a hilarious travesty of action filmmaking that we see acted out onscreen -- Hans murmurs appreciatively, "It's got layers."
And so does "Seven Psychopaths." It's a Mobius strip of flashbacks, dream sequences, meta-fictional film snippets and self-referential humor. The screenwriter Martin feels like self-satire by McDonagh, whose considerable talents don't include a knack for writing convincing female characters, a failing that's grist for wry laughs here. The film reels back through a half-century of American history to make moral statements about real and movie violence, becoming Martin's Holy Grail, a bloody shoot-'em-up with an ethical core. Wow. Just wow.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • On Twitter: @colincovert