Opening on a tight shot of the Hollywood sign and a pan down to Michael Pitt waiting by the Silver Lake Reservoir—two symbols that set the tone for all senses of foreboding—Martin McDonagh’s third feature, Seven Psychopaths, is at once self-aware and unexpected. Known as one of the premier Irish playwrights, McDonagh’s approach to filmmaking and screenwriting is decidedly cerebral. His previous two films, Six Shooter and In Bruges (also starring Colin Farrell) seem, in retrospect, to be leading up to the daring and deviant narrative of Seven Psychopaths.
Like all denizens of L.A., (no, literally all of them), Marty (Farrell) is working on a screenplay. The only thing he knows for sure about it, however, is that it’s going to be called Seven Psychopaths (are you picking up on that self-aware element I mentioned before?). Marty’s challenges in writing the script are twofold: 1) He’s an alcoholic and 2) He wants the film to have a “life-affirming” message in spite of its subject(s). His best friend, an out of work actor/dog thief named Billy Bickle (the ideal typecast for generally crazy Sam Rockwell, whose last name in the movie is hopefully a nod to Taxi Driver), offers to help him write the movie, even pointing out a story to him in the paper about the Jack of Diamonds killer—known for only killing high-level members of organized crime.
Immediately intrigued by the concept, Marty begins writing the Jack of Diamonds killer in as one of the seven psychopaths, in addition to the two killers he already has in mind: A Quaker (the indubitably creepy Harry Dean Stanton) stalking the murderer of his daughter and a Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen) seeking vengeance for his country by strapping dynamite on a prostitute and blowing up a hotel. In spite of his increased enthusiasm for the project, Marty’s disapproving girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish, who gets to keep her Australian accent in this movie), remains unimpressed and annoyed by Marty’s career path. Billy, meanwhile, has no problem constantly expressing what a cunt she is to Marty. Their relationship is finally forced to a close when Marty drunkenly calls Kaya a bitch at a party in front of all their friends.
Too blacked out to remember doing so, Marty has no idea why he finds himself waking up to a shih tzu licking his face in Billy’s apartment. The shih tzu in question belongs to a deranged crime boss named Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), and is merely one in a series of dogs Billy has stolen with his partner, Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken, wearing a cravat throughout most of the story that I hope inspires a comeback for the once forgotten accessory). Though their scheme to claim the reward after returning each of the dogs has always been seamless in the past, Charlie catches on to their strategy after nearly killing his dog walker, Sharice (Gabourey Sribe, who hasn’t seemed to breakout from the Precious stigma in terms of being condemned for her weight) before they can attempt to return Bonny--though we later realize that this was Billy’s plan all along, who has been secretly dating Charlie’s girlfriend, Angela (Olga Kurylenko, a former model with memorable roles in Paris, Je T’aime and Quantum of Solace), making him privy to just how valuable the dog is to Charlie.
As increasing layers of psychopathy are revealed, we eventually learn that Billy is the Jack of Diamonds killer, and has orchestrated the entire dog-napping to set off this particular chain of events so that Marty could gain true insight into what it means to be a psychopath (it’s psychopathically brilliant, isn’t it?). The third act then shifts into an entirely different form of narrative, becoming more about the analysis of how Marty’s movie should end—meaning Seven Psychopaths itself (meta). Among the ranks of The Player and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Seven Psychopaths turns the genre it explores on its ear and leaves you reeling in the best possible way. And then, of course, there is the sardonic use of “The First Cut is the Deepest,” making it automatically impossible not to love.