The second feature from Irish writer/director/playwright Martin McDonagh, Psychopaths mines the same deconstructive, profanely funny vein he tapped in his 2008 debut In Bruges, gleefully gutting the crime-movie tropes we've all absorbed. The movie even opens with two suave-looking hitmen (played by two actors who will make Boardwalk Empire fans all giddy) cracking shit and talking wise — pure Tarantino archetypes — before a masked gunman walks up and blows holes in their heads.
The killer (who spends most of the movie killing mid-level mob hoodlums, by the way) could be a stand-in for McDonagh, and he's not the only one. Colin Farrell, who gave his best performance starring in Bruges, plays a hard-drinking Irish screenwriter named — wait for it! — Marty. He's stuck trying to come up with a septet of killers for his screenplay, also called Seven Psychopaths. Good thing his action-loving actor buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) turns up to bounce around ideas. On the side, Billy runs a dog-kidnapping business with Zen-like, cop-hating Christian Hans (Christopher Walken, in his own universe as always), who uses the money to pay his ailing wife's medical bills. The bullets start flying when a very unstable gangster (Woody Harrelson) comes gunning for them after they kidnap his beloved Shih Tzu.
This sounds like the sort of ridiculous setup Guy Ritchie would film in a heartbeat, but McDonagh's more interested in a meta joyride through the conventions of hip neo-crime movies. As Farrell's frustrated screenwriter bitches about wanting to write a film with substance, Psychopaths uses most of its screen time to lament the sensationalistic emptiness of contemporary pulp cinema, starting with its own. A movie that openly admits its own female characters (who includes Abbie Cornish and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) are mostly nothing but poorly written, easily discarded eye candy, Psychopaths comes off as a freewheeling, Charlie Kaufman-esque version of a scuzz movie. (Wait — didn't Shane Black already do that with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?)
As heady, unpredictable and compulsively watchable as Seven Psychopaths is, I'm still not convinced all of it works. As with any movie with a narrative this ambitious and laboriously paced, some of its ideas are better laid-out than others. With all the blood-spattered action that goes down — we haven't even gotten to a bunny-carrying Tom Waits spinning Farrell a tale that sounds like a gorier version of Natural Born Killers — what may weird out audiences more is when McDonagh goes all Antonioni in the second half, having Farrell, Rockwell and Walken hide out in the desert killing time until the long-foretold climactic shootout. (Rockwell does come up with an insanely hilarious ending for Farrell's movie as they all sit around the campfire.)
As in his superior Bruges, though, McDonagh mainly addresses how the movies not only never really take death seriously, but rarely provide characters who face up to it nobly and fearlessly. Violence may be served up in copious amounts here, but McDonagh also creates characters who have no qualms going gently into that good night if and when their time comes. As much of a cinematic clusterfuck of carnage Seven Psychopaths becomes, I'm so glad the movie exists.