January 30, 2013

DVD OF THE WEEK: Seven Psychopaths

by Vadim Rizov

Seven Psychopaths

It begins with a Shih Tzu. Actor Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) isn't landing work, so instead he's taken to snatching canines while their owners' heads are turned, then mock-innocently returning them after a suitably panic-inducing period and collecting a healthy reward. Billy doesn't know his latest acquisition belongs to Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), the kind of gloweringly charismatic, fearsome mobster who'll expend Scarface-level mayhem to retrieve his beloved pet. There's something equally off about Billy, as his last name implies and both he and Charlie seem like expertly played only-in-the-movies types.

Seven Psychopaths

Martin McDonaugh's Seven Psychopaths expands its scope to the real world when various weirdoes respond to an ad Billy places seeking psychos' stories. He's trying to help his creatively blocked alcoholic screenwriter friend Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell, allowed to use his natural Irish accent), who's struggling to write Seven Psychopaths, a script about... guess. Though understandably freaked out about being cold-called by confirmed murderers, Marty listens to tales of gruesomely titanic violence, often precipitated by or in response to racists. Exhausted, he dreams about writing a second half in which assorted killers head out to the desert, sit around, talk, learn about each other and avoid the seemingly inevitable violent finale. "What are we making, French movies now?" Billy scoffs, later responding with his own proposed final confrontation, an insanely over-the-top gunfire melee in which nearly everyone gets gory slow-mo ends. "Peace is for queers," Charlie screams in Billy's vision, one of the most purely American formulations in recent cinema. Film violence and national bloody-mindedness become interchangeable, (too) pointedly so in the final shot (barring a post-credits bit): the Hollywood sign again, now with an American flag, three-quarters burnt yet still flapping in the wind.

A screenwriter named Marty in a movie written by a Martin, working on a movie of the same name as the one we're watching: in summary, Seven Psychopaths sounds too meta to tolerate. McDonagh lets us know how he feels about Hollywood right off the bat, zooming out from the sign as Hank Williams sings about the angel of death. If the anti-company-town vibes are familiar, the subject is tightly focused and more pungent than the usual jokey whining about the difficulties of filmmaking by committee.

Seven Psychopaths

Consider Bonny the abducted dog. Her abduction leads to violence, just as in Samuel Fuller's 1982 White Dog, the story of a German shepherd trained to attack black people on sight. That film's Hollywood setting is far from incidental: actress Kristy MacNichol's investment in retraining the animal is commendable but pointless against the backdrop of an industry which, for much of its history, has trafficked in insensitive-to-downright-hateful stereotypes. It wouldn't be surprising to learn Seven Psychopaths' use of its own white canine as an incitement to violence was inspired by Fuller's film. Full of anachronistic (and sadly not so much) racial epithets and lots of white-on-black violence and vice-versa, Seven Psychopaths conflates real-world racism, arguing that unconscious hatred and the promulgation of stereotypes still lies at the industry's heart. (Its use of one epithet in particular has earned McDonagh comparisons to Tarantino, though they really have nothing in common: the former's an outraged outsider, while the latter's a Hollywood termite.)

Generically, Seven Psychopaths is supposed to be dark comedy. It's often quite funny, thanks to its central trio: feckless drunk Marty (lots of easy but fun jokes about how the Irish and writers in general are confirmed boozers), oddball Billy (Sam Rockwell at his most Rockwell-y) and their mutual friend Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken, in his least phoned-in, rote eccentric performance in years). Much of the second half is indeed a "French movie": languid fireside chat and amiably bickering discourse. But as in McDonagh's first feature In Bruges, the good times can't last. Retributive violence with heavily Catholic overtones is inevitable, disconnected totally from the racial thematics. Rent it for the goofy camaraderie, chew on its righteously angry take on "contemporary" race relations at their least reconstructed in reality and on screen, and be prepared to be punished for enjoying yourself.

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Posted by ahillis at January 30, 2013 8:52 AM