Movie review: Excellent cast delivers in 'Seven Psychopaths'

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If the black comedy at hand had a heroine, it might have been called "Snow White and the Seven Psychopaths." But since it doesn't, it's just plain "Seven Psychopaths" -- the most wickedly well-written and outrageously entertaining film I've seen this year.

We have Irish playwright Martin McDonagh to thank for writing and directing it. Protagonist Marty (Colin Farrell) has best bud Billy (Sam Rockwell) to thank for the psychopaths. He needs them to spice up the lackluster overdue screenplay he's been (hardly) working on. Billy suggests the wild-and-crazy psychopath path, pushing for a big climactic shootout -- a kind of "Wild Bunch of Psychos" homage to Peckinpah.

Billy is wild and crazy, in general, with a lucrative wild-and-crazy occupation: He and his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) kidnap upscale dogs, then "find" and return them to their frantic owners for hefty rewards. Recession? What recession? This is Los Angeles. Business is booming.

'Seven Psychopaths'

4 stars = Outstanding
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson.
  • Rating: R for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality, nudity and some drug use.

It starts booming too loudly, however, when they kidnap the beloved Shih Tzu belonging to psychopathic gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who casually kills people for far lesser misdemeanors. The Shih Tzu's tag should have been a warning: "Return dog or you will [expletive] die."

Add the prolific Jack of Diamonds serial killer, the rabid rabbit-lover Zachariah, the psychotic Vietnamese monk, and a mad chain-smoking Quaker (played by the immortal Harry Dean Stanton) and you get -- well, most if not all the psychopaths who populate both the script and the script-within-the-script.

You also get a dream cast of character actors, each portraying his or her uniquely warped personality, "psychopathy being in the eye of the beholder," after all. Most important is the odd couple of dangerously co-dependent friends: ingenuous Mr. Farrell (with his drinking problem and inverted-"V" worried eyebrows) and loony misogynist Mr. Rockwell (with his Travis Bickle references). Dog-loving Mr. Harrelson is terrific, bantering with his victims before blowing them away; rabbit-loving Tom Waits is perfectly perverted, in turn.

All of them play it straight, for expensive rather than cheap laughs, but none better than Mr. Walken -- the only "nonviolent psychopath" of the batch, whose deathly calm and patented eccentric line delivery make for his best performance since "Catch Me if You Can."

Multitalented Mr. McDonagh is a masterful creator of creepy characters that are ever so human despite their inhuman behavior -- such as the lowlife Irish killers (Mr. Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) of his previous film, the existential tragicomic thriller "In Bruges."

This one seems tailor-made for and about writers, especially struggling alcoholic ones. Marty offers to let Billy and Charlie co-write his script, and they discuss their differing versions of it around a campfire while waiting for the bloody climax. There's much in-joke confusion over the real outside psychopaths vs. the psychopaths in the script -- and about "what happens in the end?"

When all the mayhem and shootouts are said and done, Marty says he wants it to be "life-affirming." Mr. McDonagh says he wants it to be "spiritual but also dark and deranged." The character isn't kidding. The director is pulling our leg.

"Seven Psychos" is a fine over-caffeinated faux-noir thriller. Mr. McDonagh and his profoundly profane language riff on crime film cliches, channeling as well as lampooning Tarantino. It is occasionally over the top (that incendiary Buddhist priest, for example) but overall razor-sharp.

Beware the rough lingo and sudden shocking bursts of violence, somewhere between stylized cartoonish and horrific. That final bloodbath is to die for, in more ways than one.


Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:


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