Seven Psychopaths starts with promise, a kinetic pitter-patter conversation that instantly engages.
This veers back-and-forth as the scene grows to a symphonic crescendo. The orchestrated buildup is breathtakingly energetic. And sadly fools the viewer into thinking they're in for one helluva movie. Instead that momentum dies rather swiftly, as the film gets tangled within itself.
The supposed synopsis – a struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster's beloved Shih Tzu – is lost as the director, Martin McDonagh, panders his own ego in an annoying display of ironic intelligence.
Which is a shame, really, for the film has great moments of witty banter and black comedy. This should come as no surprise for fans of McDonagh's work though, as the playwright and director has garnered a reputation as a master of such bleak comedy.
Unfortunately, McDonagh's comedy here is a Pyrrhic victory. It's sprinkled in amongst unending tangents of self-knowing narrative. So, while one may warrant a particular joke funny, it comes at a dreadful cost. Not only as time wasted, but as performances squandered.
For the film features great turns by a handful of talented actors.
Woody Harrelson is endearingly toothsome as a soft-hearted, yet exceedingly violent nihilist gangster. Similarly deranged, Christopher Walken appeals in his turn as a soulful and marvelously deadpan con-man.
The most “real” character of the ensemble is the screechingly petulant Marty, played here by Collin Farrell. A screenwriter by trade he is, one would presume, a slightly tongue-in-cheek proxy for McDonagh. His “real” problems — alcoholism, self-absorption — are designed as a foil to the madcap array of characters that populate the novel.
While Farrell is well suited in his turn as a self-serious writer, his performance is, by and large, lost in the shuffle.
The real marvel of Seven Psychopaths is Sam Rockwell as the psychotic glue to the madcap movie. He's the oddball driving force, both funny and virulently nuts. And as such, McDonagh would have been better served setting up his character of Billy as the undivided protagonist instead of wasting time with such cloying and unending drivel.
At its most basic, there is something compelling and ingenious about the concept behind Seven Psychopaths. Which is perhaps McDonagh's root aim, to create not only a darkly funny film, but a full-frontal attack on cinematic cliches. It does succeed in the latter, but at the cost of stripping the movie of all emotion. In doing so, McDonagh negates the strong work of his performers and ensures failure for his film.
The movie tells us nothing about ourselves. It's just oddball hi-jinks strung together with never-ending mental gymnastics, becoming both a story with no end and no aim.