Just what is that non-violent people get out of violent stories? Possibly a deeper understanding of the roots of violence where it is found, but more likely a kind of vicarious thrill, a holiday from civility and an indulgence in primal bad behavior. By asking the question, Seven Psychopaths gives itself a bit more heft than, say, the aptly named The Expendables.
As written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh (acclaimed for haunting but darkly comic plays like The Pillowman), Seven Psychopaths investigates the absurdity of Southern California, where movie crime shares real estate with real crime. As aspiring screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) tussles with his screenplay "Seven Psychopaths," he gets not entirely welcome kibitzing from Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell). Bickle's day job involves kidnapping pets so partner Hans (Christopher Walken) can return them and collect reward money, a scheme that hits a snag when they inadvertently put their hands on a Shih Tzu belonging to a gangster (Woody Harrelson).
Rightly panicked, the three stooges hightail it to Joshua Tree National Park, where their ineptitude strands them even as doom approaches. Call it "Waiting, with Guns, for Godot": faced with the absurdity of their situation, the three men talk and talk to stave off the inevitability of the existential void.
And so the gleefully violent, comically profane Seven Psychopaths represents a sort of evolutionary step from Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, but without that picture's coked-up energy and propulsive narrative drive. McDonagh gets bogged down in the desert, where Hans' observation about psychopaths ("They get kind of tiresome after all, don't you think?") becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That McDonagh can see that about his own screenplay is part of its postmodern appeal, to a point. Lines like "I don't want it to be one more film about guys with guns in their hands," "Your women characters are awful!" and "Life-affirming, schmife-affirming. It's about seven (expletive deleted) psychopaths!" acknowledge the script's weak spots while working to let McDonagh off the hook for them. The ironic McDonagh motif of exploring the soft spots of homicidally violent men gets full play here, in that arguably none of the "psychopaths" fit the definition of a person so psychologically troubled as to be incapable of love.
The picture is smart enough to work on multiple levels: as a witty salute to masculine '70s cinema ("Marty" can stand for Marty Scorsese as well as Martin McDonagh), as a deconstruction of same (Rockwell's "Bickle," alluding to De Niro's psychopath in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, symbolically embodies the eager violence Marty needs for a commercially successful script), and as an existential consideration of the role of self-expression in ascribing meaning to life, including the question of artistic "responsibility."
This potentially irritating playfulness works because of likeable performances from the central trio of actors. Farrell, Rockwell, and Walken play off their own screen personas while reminding us of their extensive comic capabilities. Accompanied by the empathetic funereal strains of customary Coen Brothers composer Carter Burwell, these men make beautiful music out of the mortal fear of living to die.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]