With his darkly comic feature debut In Bruges, writer/director Martin McDonagh established himself as a filmmaker who was more than willing to take comedy to some very warped places. Now he's back with Seven Psychopaths, a comedic crime thriller with a hair trigger, a lean script, and a killer cast. Much like In Bruges, the violence in Seven Psychopaths might be too intense for some, but anyone with a taste for the twisted or absurd is bound to savor every outrageous minute.
Aspiring screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) has a brilliant script called Seven Psychopaths floating around in his head; unfortunately, he's usually too hungover to make any real progress on it. Meanwhile, Marty's best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) has some great ideas for the story, but he's reluctant to offer input without invitation. A down-on-his-luck actor, Billy pays his rent by running a lucrative dognapping scam with smooth-talking Hans (Christopher Walken). Just when frustrated Marty begins to fear that all of his ideas have dried up, however, Billy appears with an adorable shih tzu swiped from a quick-tempered gangster named Charlie (Woody Harrelson), which in turn leads to a desperate trip into the desert that finds the ideas flowing like drinks at an open bar.
Blasting out of the gates with a violent double homicide committed by one of the titular psychos, McDonagh's sophomore feature establishes its bloody-but-fun tone from the very first shot and makes no apologies as a small-time scam sends Marty, Billy, and Hans running for their lives. As the hard-drinking screenwriter prone to shooting off his mouth and the supportive friend who runs a lucrative dognapping scheme, respectively, Farrell and Rockwell establish a satisfying buddy chemistry early on that takes on compelling new dynamics once Walken enters the mix. At the same time, Marty's ambitious screenplay offers McDonagh the opportunity to take the film on a few wild tangents that allow Tom Waits and Harry Dean Stanton to get in on the fun, yet he still keeps the focus on the main story as the volatile Charlie spares no bullets in his quest to recover his beloved missing dog. Sure, Seven Psychopaths feels more silly than edgy most of the time, but McDonagh fills his screenplay with enough surprises that we're never quite sure how far he'll go in order to get a laugh.
And just when the movie starts to feel like a grotesque comic caricature, the writer grounds his outlandish tale with a scene that's simultaneously humorous, tense, and poignant -- largely thanks to Harrelson's volatile performance -- as Charlie interrogates Hans' wife (played with stoic dignity by Linda Bright Clay) while searching for the elusive dognapper. At first, the tense, decidedly personal interaction feels almost out of place. But later, as the three protagonists flee into the mountains for the final confrontation, we realize that scene is the true heart of the film.
Of course, there's no real lesson to be taken from all of the bloodshed, profanity, and pulpy excess on display in Seven Psychopaths, and even when the screenplay is delivering surprise revelations, we never feel as if McDonagh is trying to blow our minds by reveling in his own wit and cleverness. It's the satisfying dialogue flow, the playful interactions between the characters, and the knowing jabs at traditional screenplay tropes that keep us laughing even once the shooting starts, and for those who aren't averse to a bit of gallows humor, Seven Psychopaths is just original and morbid enough to be genuinely memorable.