Irish playwright Martin McDonagh broke into the world of film in 2004 with his Oscar winning short Six Shooter, which starred Brendan Gleeson as a suicide-contemplating widower whose day is complicated when he meets a psychotic teenager on a train in the Irish countryside. When McDonagh's feature length debut, In Burges, opened in 2008, it was clear that the writer/director's niche was in black dramedy.
Seven Psychopaths finds McDonagh in familiar territory, although it plays bigger on laughs while perhaps setting aside some of the macabre tone of his previous works. This isn't to suggest that Psychopaths is light-hearted by any means: after all, it's a film about a group of lunatics who, for the most part, don't shy away from fairly gruesome violence. What lightens the mood is the ridiculousness of it all - story, characters, dialogue etc.
Colin Farrell plays Marty, an Irish screenwriter in Hollywood struggling with writer's block and a drinking problem. When his actor buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) directs Marty to a newspaper article about a serial killer, Marty names his script "Seven Psychopaths." The problem? Marty doesn't have enough psychos. Luckily he has his friends. Billy has become involved in an elaborate dog-kidnapping scheme, whereby he and his friend Hans (Christopher Walken) return stolen dogs for reward money. When they kidnap a beloved Shih Tzu belonging to the volatile Charlie (Woody Harrelson), Marty, Billy, and Hans find themselves caught up in a story that looks oddly familiar.
Throughout the movie, we're shown a handful of quasi-flashbacks that depict everything from specific acts of characters Marty has written, to actual past events, and ideas on how this unsavory situation may unfold. These are some of Seven Psychopaths strongest cinematic moments. A clip of a revengeful Quaker played by Harry Dean Stanton and a conflicted Vietnamese soldier provide the film with some of its darker moments, while a bunny-toting Tom Waits complete with murderous background is delightfully absurd (it also doesn't hurt that I literally worship Waits).
The highlight is a lengthy scene displaying in all its glory the imagination of Rockwell's Billy. It's a hilarious sequence that is without a doubt the most memorable in a film filled with funny moments.
In terms of a generalized story, Psychopaths' approach is anything but new. The meta narrative about a struggling screenwriter intent on transcending the Hollywood norm, who ultimately finds himself caught up in the type of conflict he's tried so desperately to distance himself from was memorably told as recently as 2002 with Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation (although outside of that narrative concept, the two are anything but similar).
Unlike Kaufman, McDonagh appears to not have been that concerned with subtlety when it came to carrying out his ideas. In fact, he actively attempts to alert the audience of just where we were headed via frequent foreshadowing dialogue. If character tropes seem cliche (think struggling screenwriter, Irish alcoholic etc.), that's exactly the point. However, there are some moments where McDonagh is a touch more subtle, and it's in these where he's the most effective.
Psychopaths stands out on the strength of its humor, and the level to which the excellent cast is able not only to portray these nut-jobs, but to inhabit their individual characters. All of these characters are insane, and to accept Seven Psychopaths, you have to be willing to play along. Many of their behaviors are completely irrational and at times unexplainable, but because of the underlying concept, it's not out of the question to respond to these concerns by simply saying - "because they're crazy." I do realize, however, that that may seem like a bit of a cop-out.
Seven Psychopaths is so damn funny that it's easier to overlook the problems it does have. And that little Shih Tzu (self-portrayed by "Bonny") is awesome.