In Bruges is one of the funniest movies I have seen in the last couple of years. It impressively walked a line of amusing cleverness, laugh out loud punchlines, existential pathos and cartoonish violence, all while grounding the nuts and bolts of the plot to a few days in a less than thrilling Medieval city and the droll conversations that arise from forced smalltalk with increasingly agitated fellow travelers. It plays like Before Sunrise with a Tarantino filter, and I say that as a compliment to all. So, when I heard that the writer/director responsible (Martin McDonagh)’s next project was a tongue-in-cheek Hollywood fable re-teaming him with Bruges star Colin Farrell and adding folks like Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson, I was delighted. When I left the theater I wasn’t disappointed so much as apathetic – it wasn’t unpleasant, but not the powderkeg of excellence I had been anticipating. Part of that is on me – as I say in my The Raid review, I, whenever possible (since I’m a bit scatterbrained), remember to judge movies based on their goals, not failing to address personal expectations I have assigned it. When your previous feature is In Bruges, however, there are going to be expectations.
I saw Seven Psychopaths when it came out in theaters last year, and after catching it I had pretty much forgot about it. I caught it for a second time the other day with a friend, and as tends to be the case, I picked up on and appreciate a great deal more with the additional viewing. Before I do a compare/contrast on what I considered to be strengths the second time through vs. amplified weaknesses, let’s do a broad recap.
In present day Hollywood, a boozy screenwriter (Farrell) is working on his next screenplay, though struggling beyond the title: “Seven Psychopaths”. Disquietingly enthusiastic and loyal pal Sam Rockwell presents him with a copy of a recent newspaper for inspiration. The article chronicles the activity of the “Jack of Diamonds”, a lone vigilante who has taken to killing “mid to high ranking officials of the Italian American crime syndicate”. Facing his own struggles as a seldom employed actor, Rockwell and friend, Hans (Christopher Walken) operate as part time dognappers – maintaining a veritable pound of soon-to-be-returned canines for cash rewards. These low-stakes crooks enjoy their seemingly innocuous operation until they abduct the wrong person’s dog. The person in question (Woody Harrelson) happens to be one of those mid-to-high level members of the Italian American crime syndicate and more than a little bit excitable when it comes to the well being of his Shih Tzu. Conflict introduced, psychopaths presented – not a bad start. It’s around this time, however, that the movie starts to feast on itself in increasingly bigger bites. At first, a movie written by an Irish man named Martin starring an Irish man playing a screenwriter named Marty would seem self-referential enough. But then the movie dives head first into meta cannibalism and the result is predictably muddled and more than a little self-congratulatory.
I don’t have a combative attitude towards movies which are self aware: from Sunset Blvd. to The Player, Bowfinger, Mulholland Dr., and Adaptation., Hollywood has been fair game for those willing to bite the hand that feeds and I find the inside look to almost always be fascinating. My issue with some of the developments in Seven Psychopaths is that they, for lack of a better term, seem lazy. When women characters are thinly written and either completely degraded or, more typically, brutally killed, the apparent deficiency on the writer’s part for creating these broad outlines is addressed and supposedly justified by Farrell’s character being bad at writing women. Get it? The women in the movie are written poorly, but they acknowledge it, so now it’s a strength? It doesn’t work that way. This might be entirely a matter of preference – when Adaptation. begins to delve into all the cliches that Charlie Kaufman’s surrogate desperately wants to avoid, it’s a writer very much having his cake and eating it too, but it doesn’t bother me. Maybe Adaptation. is a special case because the existence of that movie is literally the result of the real life Kaufman’s struggle with adapting an actual assignment on orchids, so while there is a pervasive degree of self indulgence that goes along with it, I think a great deal of it can in fact be forgiven because without that author’s struggle and all those idiosyncracies that movie literally wouldn’t exist.
In the case of Seven Psychopaths, the titular screenplay Farrell’s character is working on is a part of the movie, though it’s almost entirely a narrative device to bring together wild characters in loony situations and give Mr. McDonagh a platform on which to call attention to various Hollywood taboos. Among them, he suggests that people can be eviscerated, but don’t kill animals. Also, no one wants to see a pacified resolution to a violent build-up. which inevitably will need a final shoot-out, which it gets (obviously not a spoiler). Nothing overly new, right? There’s simply too many minutes spent without a purpose – partially crystallized ideas and critiques more suited for a satirical essay or an aside within a more focused movie as opposed to being the movie.
This sounds incredibly bitter and wet blanket-esque, and I really don’t want it to be. I liked the movie a great deal more the second time through. Christopher Walken, I think, is a serious revelation in this – the profound sadness and contemplative nature of his character is the only genuinely moving part in an otherwise quite silly production. I’ll also give a shout out to the use of The Walkmen’s Angela Surf City, a fantastic song by a band I’m starting to seriously love – and it’s like a shot of whiskey the movie and audience crave. And when the violence becomes absurd, like it does in a fantastically morbid sequence featuring Tom Waits or a hallucinogenic script pitch by Sam Rockwell in the desert – the movie flies. When it decides to go for it – in black humor, violence, or just slapstick – the movie soars, and watching it doesn’t seem like a chore. Unfortunately, the scenes of winking acknowledgement to the audience and Hollywood insiders become a bit tiring, and you wonder what movie it might’ve been if it took itself more seriously.