Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

26 October 2012

7 Pyschopaths

The highly anticipated new film from In Bruges director Martin McDonagh is out, y'all. (It's been out, in fact, for two weeks.)

First of all, the eponymous seven are no seven samurai or magnificent seven (and, yes, I know those are the same thing), but rather a collection of disparate psychopaths connected by Los Angeles and a frustrated screenwriter named Martin (any relation to the writer-director of the film presumably intended).

In fact, some of the psychopaths in the title never even meet one another, and I am not actually sure how they all fit in the film. Neither is McDonagh, and I think that he is sort of fine with that. In many ways, Seven Psychopaths reminded me of the total mess that was Woody Allen's most recent film, To Rome with Love. Psychopaths is a much, much better movie than Allen's, but it has a lot of similarities with its absurd conventions, obvious self-referential qualities, and occasionally stilted acting.

Like Allen's film, too, McDonagh's is quite funny. This is worth a lot and I appreciated it. So few films are funny nowadays. But there are many laugh-out-loud moments in Seven Psychopaths, and they are even worth the loads of nonsense through which one is forced to wade in order to get there.

Psychopaths is a sort of collage of stories of psychopaths. Farrell's character is writing a screenplay about these seven psychopaths, but although his movie is not really the movie we're watching as far as I can tell, we get to see these short vignettes which are the movie, or are at least stories about psychopaths. I am not actually sure, in fact, how his movie must've turned out, but, we get pieces of it.

These stories are interesting. The best are Tom Waits's sequences, which seemed designed as a McDonagh-style nod to (the awesome) Jim Jarmusch. There is also a nod to Fincher, as well as a really great story with Harry Dean Stanton.

I want to say, too, that the acting in this film is excellent. Sam Rockwell, whom I have loved for years, is (again) great here. And Woody Harrelson and Colin Farrell are doing their usual excellent work. (It really is a shame that Farrell never got the kind of legitimate recognition that was promised with Tigerland. He really is very good.) But the stand-out is Christopher Walken, who gives what I think is an Academy-Award-worthy performance. I would not be surprised if he is mentioned at year's end. His performance is just beautiful work.

The other notable thing about Seven Psychopaths is the usual McDonagh coupling of gruesome, even grotesque violence with humor. Psychopaths is very funny, as I noted, but like In Bruges and like his plays – The Lonesome West, A Skull at Connemara, and The Pillowman, but particularly The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which I saw recently with Chris Pine – this humor is sort of about violence. McDonagh's characters are often irrational idiots, committing violence for arbitrary or asinine reasons, and thinking little about the consequences of their behavior. McDonagh's world is a one in which characters possess ethics that are inscrutable or absurd, and in which characters have no sense of life itself as sacred in any way.

Now, I am not quite sure that life is sacred, but as always I find McDonagh's own representational ethics baffling.  His work is funny, yes, but what is the point of all this hilarity? Why take the horrific banality of violence as a starting point and then transform that banality into humor as though it were so many episodes of Seinfeld? Frankly, I believe that McDonagh does have a larger project on which he is working, here. (I think Tarantino has a larger project, too.) But I'll be damned if I know what McDonagh's trying to do here. I liked this sprawling, self-reflexive, homage-filled, mess of a movie, but, as always with McDonagh, I wish for more than banality, terror, and severed carotid arteries.