For a good hour, Seven Psychopaths is lively, bloody fun. Then the yawning starts. The second movie from Irish filmmaker/playwright Martin McDonagh reprises the combination of ironic violence and earnest sentiment from his first picture, In Bruges, except this time the scope is bigger and the body count is higher. Quentin Tarantino is an obvious influence here; so, surprisingly, is Charlie Kaufman. A screenwriter named Marty (Colin Farrell) has been drinking too much in hopes of getting inspiration for his new script, which is titled Seven Psychopaths. Marty is blocked. He has come up with only one psycho thus far — a Buddhist monk who doesn’t believe in violence — and his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who is an actor, comes up with an unusual way to help Marty think of ideas.
Billy is also involved in some shady business with Hans (Christopher Walken), a cravat-wearing oddball who steals dogs and returns them to their owner days later to collect a reward. When the dognappers snatch an adorable Shih Tzu that belongs to a crazed gangster (Woody Harrelson), their simple routine gets complicated. But the ensuing mayhem also provides Billy with plenty of fodder for his script. Suddenly, there are psychos everywhere.
McDonagh invests clichéd situations and character types with urgency and ingenuity. Seven Psychopaths is packed with chatty murderers, serial killers and lunatics, but the dialogue feels natural and the conversations sound spontaneous. The opening scene, in which two hit men debate whether or not it’s OK to kill a woman, is a terrific piece of writing, ably performed by two well-known actors, the first of several surprise cameos throughout the film.
The actors are clearly having a ball. Farrell is immensely likable as the frightened screenwriter thrust into the criminal underworld, and an energized Walken gives his best performance in years, making strange poetry out of lines such as “It’s impossible for someone’s head to explode when they get shot.” Best of all is Rockwell, who lets you know from the start Billy might be a bit unhinged, then gradually reveals the depth of his depravity as the movie unfolds.
The performances are so good and the humor so effective (McDonagh never treats violence as a joke) that it’s a shame the story veers into meta territory, stranding the characters in Joshua Tree for a dull, peyote-fueled gabfest. Seven Psychopaths becomes a movie within a movie — it’s the script that Marty will eventually write. But the film fared better when it was reenacting the contrivances of the crime genre (such as the way women serve no purpose in these stories other than to get killed) instead of having the characters talk about them. Stranded in the desert, Seven Psychopaths tells instead of showing, and as one of these knuckleheads aptly puts it, hanging out with psychos gets tiresome.