Like a self-aware and sun-blitzed Elmore Leonard novel, Martin McDonagh’s Los Angeles-set “Seven Psychopaths” exploits easy quirk for big laughs, being the tale of an alcoholic Irish screenwriter (Colin Farrell) and his two scam-artist buddies (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken), who kidnap rich people’s dogs and collect the reward money. But the Shih Tzu hits the fan after the pair nab a local gangster’s pooch, gradually inspiring the creatively blocked scribe to write the film already unfolding onscreen. Late to the Tarantino knock-off party, “Seven Psychopaths” boasts a juicy enough cast to skip the straight-to-homevid fate typical of such pics.
Compared to McDonagh’s best work for stage (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore”) and screen (“In Bruges”), “Seven Psychopaths” feels like either an older script knocking around the bottom of a drawer or a new one hastily tossed off between more ambitious projects. Ironically enough, the scribe’s apparent lack of any attempt to make a grand artistic statement could easily make this outing his most accessible project to date.
Opening with a pair of hitmen (“Boardwalk Empire” duo Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt) squabbling “Pulp Fiction”-style beneath the Hollywood sign, the pic establishes its talky, irreverent tone by turning the tables on the two hired guns, who are dead before their debate is done when a weirdo in a luchador mask walks up behind and pops them each in the head. Judging by the number of times the pic kills characters via exploding chunks of scalp, it’s fair to assume that head wounds are the funniest sort there is, and in keeping with the helmer’s Grand Guignol sensibility, the film certainly doesn’t skimp on opportunities to test the theory.
In no way connected to the aforementioned scene is Marty (Farrell), who only wishes he could write an opening as entertaining as that, but all he has is a title, “Seven Psychopaths.” So good friend Billy (Rockwell) pitches in, taking out a classified ad suggesting that any former psychos interested in having their stories told on film should drop by. Astonishingly, they get only one reply (a fun cameo from Tom Waits, playing a man who serially kills other serial killers), though McDonagh has no trouble concocting half a dozen other nut jobs to flesh out his title.
As the mobster missing his Shih Tzu, Woody Harrelson surprisingly comes across less psycho than many of his roles. Still, playing the character for his dog-loving soft spot seems the right choice for the film’s tone, which is generally kind to crazies and hard on everybody else, especially women and anyone who ain’t white. The fact that the characters acknowledge this weakness doesn’t make it right, though the script’s primary tension isn’t between the characters at all, but rather in McDonagh’s mind, as he arm-wrestles the split between shlock and sincerity in screenwriting.
The film’s overall tone is so cartoony, it’s easy to imagine someone spinning off a macabre animated series of the same name, if only more of the psychopaths survived at the end. As it is, the film takes place in a version of L.A. that appears simultaneously familiar and kitsched up to an intense degree, with plain white-walled apartments crammed full of shag throw pillows and odd plastic dolls. McDonagh’s going for weird, and his set and prop teams have certainly indulged him, while Carter Burwell supplies a score — like so much of his work for the Coen brothers — that puts a funereal spin on the material’s almost playful disregard for human life.
There’s an old Hollywood cliche that goes “write what you know,” and the film has fun twisting that advice by ratcheting up the insanity of the circumstances around Farrell’s otherwise feckless scribe. Opposite the unusually restrained star, Rockwell and Walken are free to chew the scenery, as editor Lisa Gunning repeatedly selects the thesps’ most eccentric takes in order to underscore the laugh. Exaggerated widescreen framing gooses the comedy further, though d.p. Ben Davis seems overwhelmed by the intensity of California sun, resulting in extremely high-contrast exteriors.