Having a Blast with Writer’s Block

A troubled screenwriter finds his story and whole a lot more when a dog kidnapping scheme goes bad

Brutal and often very funny, Seven Psychopaths is writer-director Martin McDonagh’s answer to Barton Fink, a crimson yarn that, like that Coen brothers film, imagines what happens in a worst-case-scenario when a Hollywood scribe comes down with writer’s block.

Unlike a worthy audience-pleaser such as Argo, which can be recommended to almost anyone, McDonagh’s splattery jape is more of a … specialty item, let’s say. But as with In Bruges, the playwright and filmmaker’s previous feature, McDonagh’s story—set in Hollywood, the land of sunshine, development deals and nervous envy that crawls like a vine up a trellis—actually gives its killers interesting things to say en route to the next rendezvous with destiny.

Colin Farrell plays Marty, the authorial stand-in. Tense, preoccupied, an alcoholic and a B-minus boyfriend (Abbie Cornish plays his squeeze), Marty already has blown past his deadline to turn in a screenplay titled, promisingly, Seven Psychopaths. His unemployed actor friend, Billy, played with delightful worminess by Sam Rockwell, is Marty’s biggest fan. He wants to collaborate with him, in fact. Marty’s not so sure.

Along with his pal Hans (Christopher Walken), Billy makes a kind of living kidnapping dogs and collecting reward money upon return. Then, fatefully, they take the wrong dog, a shih tzu belonging to a murderous gangster (Woody Harrelson, who replaced Mickey Rourke early in the project). He is one of several genuine psychos who give Marty something to write about. The hard way.

McDonagh’s characters may be awful, or simply lost, but they’re all addicted to the art of the tall tale and the dark allure of the nightmarish bedtime story. Part of the enjoyment in Seven Psychopaths is seeing everyone’s stories, real or imagined, spill out onto the screen. When Tom Waits, marvelously droll, enters the piece as a particularly focused brand of serial killer (a serial killer of serial killers, in fact), McDonagh folds illustrative flashbacks inside the main narrative. (McDonagh’s play The Pillowman worked from a similar strategy, turning the stage over to depictions of various fairy tales.) Seven Psychopaths opens with a couple of prime supporting players, Michael Stuhlbarg (the lead in the Coens’ A Serious Man and a Pillowman Broadway alum) and Michael Pitt, as hired killers waiting atop a reservoir to eliminate their target. Their banter kills time, amusingly. Then the real killing begins, and in a matter of a second, ends. It’s swift and horrible and by definition a sight gag of the bloodiest sort.

As Marty gets sucked deeper and deeper into trouble created or simply found by well-meaning Billy, the film crisscrosses L.A. and then ventures out into the desert east of L.A., into Joshua Tree National Park. McDonagh, like so many other writer-directors, is in love with the fable of the Old West, the prospects of frontier justice. Just when most movies would tighten the screws and deliver routine thrills, Seven Psychopaths unwinds a little, hanging out in the desert with Marty, Hans and Billy, as they work on the script while prepping for an outlandish showdown.

The blend of black humor and sincere pathos doesn’t always coalesce. Certain bits stuck in my craw, particularly a dubious reference to the My Lai massacre and the way the dog-walker played by Gabourey Sidibe is treated. Shot on film by cinematographer Ben Davis, scored with sinister ripples of doom by composer Carter Burwell, McDonagh’s work is defiantly two-faced about its intentions. Marty, the fictionalized McDonagh, yearns to write something meaningful and humane. Yet he can’t help it: His impulses run the other direction. And he’s saddled with that tantalizing title, the promise of which he must fulfill.

McDonagh has the same yearning. The result is a clever, violent daydream. But McDonagh’s skill behind the camera has grown considerably since In Bruges. And the way he writes, he’s able to attract the ideal actors into his garden of psychopathology.

Seven Psychopaths (PG-13) ★★★☆☆

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