Objective Favoritism Presents…Seven Psychopaths
Kevin Pearson, the latest addition to the Culture Fusion review crew, is a movie fanatic with the kind of in-depth knowledge of movies that would frighten Roger Ebert (were he still amongst us). There are few people who’s insight into movies I respect more, which is why I’m thrilled he’s decided to contribute a regular look at movies. Today, he takes a look at director Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths.”
When The New Republic’s film critic, Stanley Kauffmann, was overseeing the terrain of 1972, he happily admitted the offbeat comedy, Pocket Money, (notably written by Terrance Malick) was his favorite film of the year. He didn’t wash the film in any other acclaim. From my disposition, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is my favorite movie of 2012. Instead of stop comment as short as Kauffmann did when he made his remark in passing during a review for another film, I think McDonagh’s work has some relevant updates on the relationship between violence and comedy.
The simple story of a struggling writer (played by Colin Farrell) trying to come up with screenplay ideas for his titled script, “Seven Psychopaths,” becomes fodder for metaphysical mishaps when his friend (played by Sam Rockwell) unexpectedly gets him mixed up in mob action, meeting potential candidates for psychopathic inspiration, and finding other ways for the script to begin writing itself with Farrell orbiting around a host of crazy characters and situations. Also making things more convoluted is when Farrell begins pawning stories he hears as his own and finds them unexpectedly having truths to people around him.
Scene to scene explanation of the story involves too many highs and extremes to canvas in any word limited review. Probably, that’s the point. At the beginning, Farrell’s character, a loathing alcoholic, proudly announces he wants his film to be about psychopaths but have an antagonistic relationship to playing up the violence. The continuing feud between him and Rockwell’s character is how depraved and isolated Rockwell is in any logical bearings and wants the film to be over violent. Rockwell continually tries to be sensible and fails in most regards. Throughout the film, the two flex the extent of a friendship by bouncing antics off of each other and riding the other to be better versions of their selves.
One of the ways in which Rockwell’s character digs an emotional foothold into the story is through his friendship with Christopher Walken’s character. The two scheme to kidnap dogs from people and return them to collect reward money, but at the heart of their misdeeds is a genuine love for each other. While background for Walken’s character is eventually elaborated through a simple story that the film later reveals to be about him, the characterization begins by depicting his loyalty and sense of romance to his ailing wife. She is hospital bound to a cancer ward. Seven Psychopaths isn’t meek in trying to play up the music and the sympathy card. In Walken’s own way, he’s a disheartened psychopath, too. The film collects personal anecdotes to tally up the whole of his behavior.
During interviews for the film, Martin McDonagh did say he wanted the film to be different from other films in today’s landscape of easy violence in movies. Right now, most American films interested in violence and its relationship to irreverent humor all descend from the altar of Quentin Tarantino. With movies like Pulp Fiction, Tarantino pried violence away from mostly being the cause and effect result of extremely tense moments to an element of everyday reality for some extreme characters. You can be a gangster who just got done with the ordeal of an accidentally killing a man in the back of your car and grimace more over the cleaning issues of a blood sprayed car than anything else. The comedy of complaining who is more to fault and what body parts the guilty party should clean has its inherent comedy in contrasting sanity with insanity.
The problem is with this innovation came duplication and instead of violence being aged to a fine wine of any sophistication, filmmakers began to compliment every imaginable situation with its greatest violent possibility. Ability to be judicial also ended because filmmakers in America were blessed with the rating of PG-13 and knowledge the rating board would approve most things under the content sun when it came to violence. Sexual content was another matter, but copycats of Tarantino could live happily knowing they were able to show most things and expand their audience reach. The normalization of this commodity also made Tarantino’s original effect of a violent statement almost obsolete. The audience no longer churns and stands back at humor and violence. One still should appreciate Pulp Fiction because it is well written and acted, but comparable to Hitchcock and his original idea of shocking suspense, the effect could only be short lived.
Seven Psychopaths exists thanks to this history. To make a comment, the film purposely plays up the comedic faults of the characters and whirls generalizations and stereotypes into a frenzy. Also stretching itself out of Tarantino, the film revolves around conservation and interaction between characters. Tarantino did tap into something uniquely humane by basing his vision of violence in domestic ways through violent characters because it better reflects how people interact, but Seven Psychopaths is a more honest projection of our desire to carry on friendships. There is an intangible love between Rockwell and Farrell that spans as many narcissistic and insane ideas of problematic friendships people may see or experience every day. The film just so happens to mesh the whirling madness of a friendship with a number of violence clichés in movies.
It also avoids some previous problems by other filmmakers. Mr. and Mrs. Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie was intended to be satire of action films, but its cast two action stars in the roles instead of more recognizable dramatic actors who would have been out of place trying to ham up action clichés. Sam Rockwell will never be confused for an action star (well, same would have been said for Bruce Willis pre-Die Hard, too) but the build-up to his idea of the perfect shoot out is pitch perfect comedy for our time. Like I said, Farrell wants the film to be anti-climactic about violent outcomes, but Rockwell continues to badger him about the necessity of violence in his script. In trying to help out Farrell, he acts out his idea of what a perfect gun fight would look like. The film graciously provides depiction of what his shootout looks like and it’s filled with enough over-the-top craziness. The film also captures fair amount of Rockwell’s inspired performance of it.
In interviews, Martin McDonagh said he wrote Seven Psychopaths at the same time as In Bruges but made the latter first since it required less technical knowhow as regards to filmmaking and production. Transitioning from theater, there needed to be a professional development in film before McDonagh could exploit tricks of the action trade in this story. He also said the film was written specifically with Sam Rockwell in mind. All the actors (Farrell included) are better actors at comedy than anything else, but Rockwell is one of the better comedic actors in recent years and it’s easy to say he has the standout performance. The film takes advantages of his talent with playing neuroticism and extending out reaction to people/things in scenes a little longer and with more detailed nuance. Many actors can play neurotic and play up neurotic characteristics well enough, but Rockwell knows how to operate in the spaces between the actions and how to delay the payoff funny reaction. Emma Thompson once said screen acting was the ability to master the look of concentration on film. Rockwell is able to find a way to concentrate while in a state of neuroticism and make it feel both fluent with the character and detailed enough to be relatively realistic (well, for as much realism as a comedy can grant).
Seemingly at ease with a slower process, Martin McDonagh has admitted his next intended feature film is written and pre-planned for a number of production details, but like Seven Psychopaths, he will wait a few years before formally moving forward with it. As a fan more than anything else, I’m hoping the next four years pass by and when they do, not too much time feels lapsed to make the waiting process feel cumbersome on any level. More Martin McDonagh is needed for our everyday cinema.