Seven amuses with intriguing structure

In 2008, Martin McDonagh made quite the entrance into feature film writing and directing with In Bruges, a crime story that followed two tourist hitmen and utilized an excellent mix of humor and drama. The film was well received: It earned three Golden Globe nominations — including a win for lead Colin Farrell — and an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Already an award winning filmmaker — following a previous win in the Oscar’s live action short category — McDonagh took more than four years to release his next movie, Seven Psychopaths.

Dog days · Colin Farrell (left), Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell star in Seven Psychopaths. When the characters kidnap a crime boss’ beloved shih-tzu, they are unwittingly sucked into a Los Angeles crime scheme. – | Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of CBS Films

Seven Psychopaths reunites McDonagh and Farrell and features an all-star cast of some of today’s most eccentric and versatile actors: The dark comedy puts talented performers such as Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken in high-profile roles: If someone were to fantasize a credits list for a film with “psychotic” undertones, this ensemble of professionals would easily come to mind.

McDonagh provides these actors with a hilariously twisted journey weaved around some incredibly distorted characters, creating a thoroughly enjoyable satire filled with ridiculous hilarity and exaggerated violence.

The plot of this horribly fun trip centers around Marty (Farrell), a struggling screenwriter attempting to develop his next feature film script,  titled “Seven Psychopaths.” Initially only able to formulate the title for his movie, Marty begins to interview real-life crazies to find structure and inspiration for his story. The conflict truly arises when Marty’s best friend, Billy (Rockwell), kidnaps a small shih-tzu with the assistance of his business partner Hans (Walken). Unfortunately for this strange trio, the little dog belongs to Charlie, a sensitive crime boss played by Harrelson. A tale of violence, madness and action ensues, all of which acts as inspiration for Marty and leads to the eventual completion of his script.

The concept of setting one’s main character as a screenwriter is often hopelessly overused in Hollywood.  But though Marty might appear to be a trite character wrapped in hackneyed traits, nothing about him or the arc he undergoes is ordinary. Rather than allowing the screenwriting occupation to form only a minor attribute of the story, McDonagh uses his protagonist’s writing as a vehicle for the plot’s movement and narrative architecture.

Marty and other characters imagine scenes in his fictional film that are then narrated by voiceover.

McDonagh then intriguingly pairs these audible passages with visual dream sequences that represent what the psychopaths are describing. In doing this, McDonagh begins to construct a highly complex narrative structure that constantly demands the audience’s attention, leading to great moments of heightened violence and laughter.

In some ways, Seven Psychopaths is an interesting use of a film within a film, with a collection of scenes from Marty’s new script incorporated into the story of Marty, Billy and Hans evading Charlie. By using this narrative trick, McDonagh achieves a “meta” state of artistic portrayal, through which the characters are self-aware of their ridiculous circumstances. It’s safe to say the use of this self-referential technique allows for huge laughs by way of each character’s incredibly maddening nuances.

The performances of Rockwell, Walken, Harrelson and several other “psychos” help make Seven Psychopaths an incredibly entertaining film from start to finish. Rockwell’s portrayal of Billy comes off as so weird, disturbing and downright silly that audiences can’t help bursting into laughter while watching him. Walken delivers some of his best acting in years while Harrelson remains invested in his character. Both names should be mentioned come this January for Golden Globe nominations.

Though the acting is genuinely great, McDonagh’s writing defines the success of Seven Psychopaths. The dialogue moves at just the right tempo to allow for almost perfectly timed laughter and riotous audience reaction. The tone of McDonagh’s script also remains especially strong. From the hilarious first scene, the audience is immediately informed of the film’s hyper-realistic nature that nearly becomes pure, absurd fantasy. McDonagh, however, never lets the film’s ridiculous nature overwhelm the more dramatic, emotional beats. He restrains from saturating the frame with comedy during certain sequences, enabling a truly touching conclusion.

But McDonagh stumbles in the pacing of the action and in transitioning between quick cuts and slower conversation. Analyzed independently, the individual scenes are very successful, but when strung together the instantaneous differences in mood can be quite exhausting. As a viewer, it’s frustrating to watch intense segments followed straightaway by less demanding scenes — gradual shifts might have been a more beneficial choice. Another fault in the film comes from the lack of developed female characters. Marty’s girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish), and Billy’s lover, Angela (Olga Kurylenko), appear in fewer than three scenes and aren’t truly effective.

But despite these few issues, Seven Psychopaths achieves a new cinematic level and an abundance of laughter few films dare to reach. Its hilarious characters, thought-provoking plot and comical violence all make it an excellent fall release.