Review: Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Director: Martin McDonagh


The poster for Seven Psychopaths boasts an assortment of random characters standing around, and some of them are clearly psychotic. No-one does psychos like Woody Harrelson, and Tom Waits stroking a rabbit is all kinds of creepy, but without a context this poster’s just a random jumble. Alas, the same can be said of the film, as writer/director Martin McDonagh succumbs to a filmic version of ‘difficult second album syndrome’ after the success of In Bruges.

Colin Farrell plays Marty, an LA-based screenwriter struggling with writer’s block. Marty is McDonagh’s stand-in for himself in this equation, although judging by the rest of the characters in this film, we’ll hope that’s where the comparisons end. There’s something admirable in turning one’s writer’s block into a screenplay in and of itself. However, Seven Psychopaths is less a script and more a hodge-podge of ideas scrambling over each other for oxygen. Marty’s best pal Billy (Sam Rockwell) runs a scheme with Hans (Christopher Walken) to con dog owners out of reward money after kidnapping their dogs. Unfortunately, they kidnap a shih-tzu belonging to Charlie (Harrelson), a mobster with something of an anger management problem, and all hell breaks loose. Meanwhile, Marty’s struggling to write his new script (imaginatively titled ‘Seven Psychopaths’) and a masked hitman is killing Mafia types all over the city. If you’re confused at this synopsis, the film won’t make it much clearer.

There’s a lot to like in Seven Psychopaths, but there’s just as much to grate the nerves. On the plus side, it’s got a slick and sunny look, and there’s more than a few scenes to give pause for thought (the tale of a vengeful Amish man [Harry Dean Stanton]being a haunting standout). McDonagh has also put together a classy cast, a mix of straight faces and pure nutjobs. Rockwell is especially good, walking a fine line between straight and unhinged with hellzapoppin’ energy. Walken is as eye-poppingly odd as ever, but Harrelson and Waits (as another of the psychopaths with a dark tale to tell) give him a run for his money. If anything though, they’re a little too OTT. Harrelson is best when going ape whilst on a short leash, but he’s allowed to go too far here, and it makes for an unsavoury experience. Meanwhile, Marty is a pretty blank slate and Farrell is rendered forgettable next to the insanity around him.

If McDonagh is not keeping his actors in check, it’s because he needs something to plug the gap where his plot should be. The script keeps jumping back and forth between Marty’s script efforts, the revenge of the shih-tzu owning Mafia nutzoid and various side plots which are only attempts to shoehorn in either emotion or clever lines. Olga Kurylenko and Abbie Cornish have about two minutes of screentime between them, and McDonagh references this fact late into the film. However, acknowledging the faults in your script is not enough to fix them. Sure, there is some clever dialogue and some utterly uproarious scenes (such as the blissfully deranged scene in which Marty, Billy and Hans act out a potential climax to Marty’s stalled script), but it’s all lacking the cohesive context of a set script. The bittiness of the plot also denies Seven Psychopaths the emotional resonance of In Bruges, even though Hans’ backstory gets shoved in our faces as a purported emotional backbone.

Watching Seven Psychopaths, it feels as if Martin McDonagh was given a large budget on the presumption he’d deliver another In Bruges, but he failed to separate out all the plots in his head to make a single solid script. There’s simply too much going on here, albeit with some gems littered amongst the chaos. One character observes, ‘Psychopaths get kinda tiresome after a while, don’tcha think?’ In this instance, it’s hard not to concur.


Review: Short Cuts (1993)

Director: Robert Altman


By the time Robert Altman received his fifth Academy Award nomination for directing Short Cuts, he had already established his reputation as a master of ensemble direction. If nothing else, Short Cuts consolidated that reputation, its breadth and scope handled with the sensitivity of a master craftsman at work.

Like previous Altman films, and most notably since in PT Anderson’s Magnolia, Short Cuts deals with the seemingly random intersections between seemingly disparate characters that seem to define life as we know it. When Doreen (Lily Tomlin) left for work one morning, did she expect to knock down a young boy named Casey (Zane Cassidy) with her car? Did she imagine the effect that would have on his parents (Bruce Davison and Andie McDowell)? And how the hell does she tolerate her slobby husband Earl (Tom Waits). These are but two storylines in a multi-tiered script by Altman and Frank Barhydt. Based on the stories of Raymond Carver, each story could make a film of its own (one segment about a group of fishermen who find a corpse in a river was inspired by the same story that inspired Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne), yet the script makes the most of the limited time it has (three hours isn’t a lot when you’ve got this many stories to cover). Every character gets an arc and a fair share of screentime. Dr. Wyman (Matthew Modine) takes the best of care of Casey in hospital, but his marriage to artist Marian (Julianne Moore) is crumbling, as is that of Marian’s sister Sherri (Madeline Stowe) and her husband, the unpleasant Gene (Tim Robbins). On the side, he’s seeing Betty (Frances McDormand), whose marriage to the impulsive ‘Stormy’ (Peter Gallagher) has rendered her an unstable single mom.

Neither Gene nor Betty is necessarily the most unpleasant character in Short Cuts (though their philandering and boorish ways would put them in most people’s Top 3 at least), and there is an argument to be made against watching tales of some truly repulsive people. Why didn’t Stuart (Fred Ward) and his fishing buddies report the body in the river immediately? Why does Jerry (Chris Penn) tolerate his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) working as a phone sex operator if it repulses him? And why is a baker (Lyle Lovett) so obsessed over a rejected cake? Again, this is just a small cross-section of stories. Altman shows us some very sad and pathetic people, but they’re truthful. Throughout Short Cuts, there is a refreshing honesty, as characters confront their miseries, frustrations and sexual misgivings. If you can’t identify with make-up artist Bill (Robert Downey Jr.) and his girlfriend Honey (Lili Taylor), you might like her parents, Doreen and Earl… aaaand we’re back where we started. Magnolia may have overtaken Altman’s opus as the definitive LA ensemble, and it may end on a terrible deus ex machina, but Short Cuts is still a bitter little slice of sun-ripened honesty, crafted with precision by a great director and with sterling performances throughout.