Thursday, March 7, 2013

Seven Problems with Seven Psychopaths (2012)

First the good news: Martin McDonagh directed a very funny, very black comedy called Six Shooter in Ireland in 2004 and you can watch it on youtube. It stars Brendan Gleeson and won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. As for Seven Psychopaths, well....

  1. The main cast is all big-name actors, and they’re all cool ‘guys’ guys’ in their 40’s or older: Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Tom Waits. The film needed some contrast. If some timid, 20-year old, relatively unknown actor had played the Farrell role, it would have helped a lot. Perhaps he could also have been an Indian, or a Mexican.
  2. It’s not a bad film, but it’s all a lark. It reminded me for some reason of ‘romps’ like Hudson Hawk or Last Action Hero. It’s wittier than those films - the moment when Walken refuses to put his hands up when someone points a gun at him is a good example of that - but it’s just as inconsequential. Nothing in the story really matters. That’s a danger of course when you mix comedy and violence: they can cancel each other out. You don’t care about the deaths and the setbacks the way you do in a drama, and the jokes don’t seem so funny either.    
  3. Sourness of tone is a problem in general. The language is not just expletive-filled as in so many other crime films. It seems nasty - as in the frequent references to women as ‘c**ts’ - and this sits badly with the film’s overall jokey tone. For me one moment in particular seemed ‘off’: the shooting of Sam Rockwell’s ‘girlfriend’. She seems to be introduced just so that she could be killed on a whim, for no apparent reason, and with no one caring. (Another female character is also killed but at least she’s mourned). There’s a meta-narrative aspect to the film because at times the characters discuss making a film called ‘Seven Psychopaths’ and Walken chides its writer (Farrell) for his disposable female characters. But stating explicitly that this is a weakness doesn’t excuse it. It just makes you think: ‘If you knew it was a problem, why didn’t you fix it?’ 
  4. The story of the Vietnamese killer-monk felt tacked-on and pointless.
  5. This is apparently a very old Martin McDonagh script. It shows. The influence of Tarantino weighs heavily on it: the Tarantino of the mid-90’s that is, not the Tarantino of today. At the start two gangsters trade witty repartee like Travolta and Jackson in Pulp Fiction and at the end we see a character who’s in fact dead now, just as we do with Travolta in Pulp. Didn’t anyone realise that it would have been a bad idea to be this derivative in 1997, let alone 2012? Even the poster for the film comes from the 90’s: a group of characters are lined up staring out at us, as in the iconic posters for Trainspotting and The Usual Suspects
  6. They should have found a better MacGuffin than a stolen dog. It’s an especially small, cutesy, ‘lady’s dog’, so you never believe that hard man Woody Harrelson would really care for it so much. It just makes the whole film silly.
  7. Most of the characters are too unrealistically impervious to engage us. Maybe because he was playing someone so stupid and unlikable, Sam Rockwell comes off worse. I usually like him but here his whiny shtick seemed really annoying. Harrelson, Farrell and Waits are OK, but could have been much better. They generally just provoke a feeling of indifference. They’ve done it all before in other, better films. Walken is the only one to come out of the film looking halfway decent, and there’s a reason for that: we care about him because he cares about someone else, his wife. So the lesson is obvious: give the characters someone or something that it will hurt them to lose.

Martin McDonagh’s first film In Bruges was excellent. Seven Psychopaths would seem to be that ‘difficult second work’ which didn’t pan out, despite initially sounding very promising. But as I said, it’s based on an old script so it’s not really a second film. There’s a clear reason it seems like a step backwards; it was written when McDonagh’s writing talent was less developed. Hopefully next time he’ll come up with something actually new.

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