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IHC Movie Reviews: Seven Psychopaths (2012)

It took great effort to finally see Seven Psychopaths.  I really wanted to see it because it was written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the same writer and director who made one of my favorite movies, In Bruges.  But this is not about my struggles and triumphs.  Let me write about Seven Psychopaths.

Great monster movies hint at the monster as much as they show it.  See Jaws.  Great time travel stories don’t really explain the intricacies of time travel.  See 12 MonkeysSeven Psychopaths is one of those tales about the complexity, the pain, and the duty of self-awareness.  See Seven Psychopaths.  I mean, you should see Seven Psychopaths.  In short, the film is incredibly layered, unbelievably violent, and undoubtedly life-affirming.

Marty (Colin Ferrell) is a sad stereotype: an Irishman who is supposedly a gifted writer, but who is too drunk to actually write. All he has is a title and a friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), who is taking some interesting steps to further the project.  The result is Billy involving Martin in some madcap psychopathic behavior that drives them out of Hollywood and into the desert in a fight for their lives. 

As the title and the ads suggest, this movie will be about violent psychopaths played by iconic sarcastic tough guys who no doubt exchange witty banter in the process of trying to kill people in entertaining ways. Yes, a head explodes at one point.  But this one might be different from the ones we’ve all seen before.  There has to be a satisfying resolution to the tiresome conflicts these psychopaths create.

Personally, I saw this film shortly after screening a very intriguing documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Mr. McNamara, Secretary of Defense for JFK, has likely analyzed as much violence as any human in history.  Among other things, he argues in that film that men must engage in evil to accomplish good.  As part of his message, Mr. McNamara recounts the story of Norman Morrison, a devout Quaker who immolated himself outside of McNamara’s window to protest the killing of civilians in Vietnam. Yet, McNamara ultimately concludes that men must admit that they cannot change human nature.  

I dare say some of us would emphatically disagree with Mr. McNamara’s analysis.  I dare say that’s exactly what Martin McDonagh is trying to do with Seven Psychopaths. So, I’ll get back to that.

It’s interesting when writers or directors finally spill names of the actors they had in mind when writing or reading a screenplay. Colin Farrell surprised me with his amazing performance in In Bruges. I really didn’t think he had it in him.  As Marty, he proves once again that he can show an impressive range of emotion and play well with others in a scene - at least when he works with McDonagh. Christopher Walken is always Christopher Walken, but his character, Hans, allows him to be creepy, quirky, wise, and incredibly warm. And, yes, he is allowed to say phrases that many people will repeat for years to come. As Billy, Sam Rockwell is either unsure of who his character is, or his character is unsure of who his character is.  It really was hard to tell at times.  By the time the movie ended, I was willing to give Rockwell credit for tricking me.  Be warned, this film also features many actors/characters who definitely deserve more screen time; Tom Waits, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Kevin Corrigan each deliver performances that left me wanting more.

The score and soundtrack is somewhere between a Tarantino film and a Coen Brothers film. It wasn’t surprising to see Carter Burwell’s name at the end. Again, there is a strange feeling we’ve seen this movie before. But this time, it might be different.

McDonagh does not use trick photography. When it’s obviously a ham moment, he uses a hammy shot. When it’s time for an obvious close-up, he uses an obvious close-up.  He doesn’t annoy his audience or attempt to exhilarate them with camera gimmicks to detract from the performances and the dialog. What he does as well as any director, however, is punctuate his dialog with a clever pan or pull-out. For example, as the alcoholic questions why he is unable to work, the camera gently allows the empty bottles to nudge their way into the shot. Similarly, some of the most powerful dialog in the movie takes place over the phone or in the form of a recording - or even a subtitle. He’s a clever fellow, this McDonagh, but he doesn’t seem to brag about it.

And there’s a dog. What we choose to love in this world, and how we choose to revere life … well, that’s entirely up to each one of us. But let’s at least acknowledge that dogs deserve unconditional love.

There are far too many stories about writers. There are far too many movies about movies.  And I really thought I never needed to see another dream within a dream.  These things are usually explored so thoughtlessly and so artlessly that the exceptions are rare and beautiful.  Seven Psychopaths is an exceptional movie. I’m going again.

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