Starring: Collin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Abbie Cornish, Sam Rockwell
Rated: R, for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use
Runtime: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Bottom line: Lots of quirk, too few laughs
Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” reminded me of the old quote from Euripides: “Cleverness is not wisdom.”
McDonagh is one of the most exciting playwrights of his generation. He excels at creating unexpected turns of the screw, those moments when unrelated plot elements converge and collide in ways that are both surprising and organic.
He brought that ability to his brilliant film debut, “In Bruges,” a film with such a unique tone and sense of humor that it’s difficult to classify or even describe to those who haven’t seen it. “In Bruges” is witty without seeming to try, shockingly violent without being gratuitous and comedic without undermining the tragedy of its story.
“Seven Psychopaths” does none of those things. It merely manages to be funny sometimes and to sound quasi-philosophical.
To a degree, the story is spelled out by the title.
McDonagh offers us seven characters deemed psychopaths, each of whom has a genuinely fascinating backstory. We are introduced to them in brief vignettes narrated in voice-over. It’s a series of short character studies, told most often by characters within the film.
This makes the film episodic, and it feels like we are being told rather than shown the story, which any writer will tell you is the cardinal sin.
The movie consists mostly of these episodes until the second half, which actually becomes more talky just as we wish the pace would pick up.
The menagerie of quirky psychopaths converge now and then as an actual plot takes shape, especially in the final act.
“Seven Psychopaths” is also a meta movie, meaning it constantly refers to itself, in vein of “The Player” or “Stranger Than Fiction.” The central character in this ensemble is Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter struggling to write a movie called — wait for it — “Seven Psychopaths.”
As he invents or borrows stories from real psychos, we watch those stories play out. Occasionally, Marty’s fictional characters spring into real life, supposedly blurring the line between fiction and reality.
Which brings me back to the Euripides quote. The whole structure and meta quality of the film is quite clever, but it prevents the viewer from engaging the characters emotionally, and prevents the film from developing the sort of gravity McDonagh created in “In Bruges,” because we’re constantly thinking about how the movie is playing around with the idea of itself.
Consider another quote from a wise dead guy, François de la Rochefoucauld: “It is a great act of cleverness to be able to conceal one’s being clever.”
That’s precisely what McDonagh fails to do. We know at all times that his characters are speaking in double entendre. Their dialogue fits within the story, but it constantly has a second meaning that references the movie we’re watching.
McDonagh is, however, an irrefutable master of dialogue. Give him two or three characters and a topic, and he will deliver an engaging scene with a handful of quotable lines.
Give him also Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell and Farrell and you are going to have some great scenes. But the sum is not greater than its parts.
The problem that the fictional writer is having within the film is the problem with the film itself. There is a lot of promising material here that might make for a great film, if only the artist knew what to do with all of it.
“Seven Psychopaths” is essential viewing for fans of indie movies, but its appeal is likely to stop there. And it won’t become a favorite film for many of those indie fans.
It’s an enjoyable movie with several great moments, but McDonagh doesn’t bring it all together into a great whole movie.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.