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Amish psychopaths and Gandhian action heroes

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Tim Kroenert |  07 November 2012

Seven Psychopaths (MA). Director: Martin McDonagh. Starring: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Waits, Amanda Warren, Long Nguyen . 106 minutes

Pacifist screenwriter Marty (Farrell) aspires to write a script for a mainstream action movie that is centrally about love. While struggling with this unlikely task he embraces the role of the tortured artist — boozing, and driving away his loved ones. His loyal but idle mate Billy (Rockwell) wants to help out both personally and professionally, while not occupied by the dog-napping racket that he has going with the aging, dapper thief Hans (Walken).

Marty's great work-in-progress is entitled Seven Psychopaths, and he is collecting material worthy of that title. Some comes from his own imagination, but he also taps the odd real-life source. For one, there is the masked figure who has been going around assassinating mobsters. Then there is Charlie (Harrelson), the latest victim of Billy and Hans' racket, who is likely to cause bloodshed should his beloved Shi Tzu not be returned to him.

The fact that the actual film shares a title with the fictional character's script reveals this  as familiar postmodern territory. Ten years ago Charlie Kaufman wrote a film called Adaptation, whose central character is a writer named Charlie Kaufman who is struggling with his latest script. It requires viewers to grapple with an awareness that the script that is so paining the writer on-screen is supposedly the script of the very film they are watching.

Seven Psychopaths doesn't chase its tail in and out of the metafictive rabbit hole with quite the same joyous abandon as Adaptation, but it is similarly self–reflexive, and shares with it a certain droll cynicism about the creative process. It also shares a black and hilarious critique both of subjectivity and self-indulgence in art and autobiography, and of the puerile interests of mainstream Hollywood and its imagined audiences.

This last point is explored most explicitly. As Marty, Billy and Hans flee to the desert to hide from the rampaging Charlie, Marty envisages an ending to his script in which the heroes simply head out to the desert and talk. Billy is incensed, insisting there must be a climactic shootout. Later he describes such a scenario, and through Billy's imaginings McDonagh parodies the kind of ludicrous excesses played for titillation in more earnest action films.

Later Charlie points out to Marty that he has lost more 'friends' during the course of their interactions than have Marty and co. On balance, and by this logic, it would seem that he is more victim than villain. It is an astute observation, which plays nicely to Marty's resistance to violence in general (to his credit he proves steadfast on this front), as well as to McDonagh's riff on the arbitrariness of labels such as 'good' and 'bad' in action films.

Woven into McDonagh's film are several mini-movies that portray some of the stories that Marty has collected in the course of compiling his screenplay: 'the Amish psychopath', in which a grief-stricken father (Stanton) slowly, psychologically tortures the man who murdered his daughter; and the story of Zachariah (Waits) and his wife Maggie (Warren), who share a love born in violent circumstances and a vengeful career that corrupts them both.

Marty is drawn to such poignant tales of vengeance driven by grief. But the idea of absolving violence through violence jars with his pacifistic leanings. He is particularly vexed by the story of a Vietnamese veteran (Nguyen) who is unhinged by the slaughter committed by American soldiers in his village. Marty sees nothing but greater bloodshed and destruction in the character's future, but feels such a resolution unworthy of the Vietnamese man.

This again resonates with Marty's pacifism and McDonagh's questioning of Hollywood action tropes. It also gives McDonagh a strong final note. For while Seven Psychopaths is a shambolic assemblage of gags and ideas that is at times brilliant (Farrell, Rockwell and Walken are a hilarious triple-act) and at others pedestrian, the resolution to Marty's 'Vietnamese psychopath' dilemma provides a potent thematic resolution to the film as a whole.


Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

 

 



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Submitted comments

another apparently good film where the actors cannot express themselves or act the part without the use of the language of the gutter. Oh how I wish for the return of the acting profession where a gesture, a pause, a look, a raised eyebrow, conveyed the depth of meaning of a character. When will they learn again about character coming from inside .

Ken FULLER 08 November 2012

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