If you think the post-Tarantino hardboiled gangster movie has been done to death, well, wait till you see “Seven Psychopaths.” This does to the gangster flick what Dali did to clocks.
Anglo-Irish playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh’s sophomore film — after the inventive hit-man comedy “In Bruges” — spends a lot of time chasing its tail: It wants to be a chatty, ironic gangster movie, but that’s been done to death, right, so let’s just tear it up and start over and take the mickey out of the whole, tired genre … But wait, wouldn’t it be really awesome to see hard-nut Woody Harrelson in a stare-down with icy cold Christopher Walken? Yes, that would be cool, so are we making the gangster movie or not?
That’s a tension that “Seven Psychopaths” carries, hilariously, to its final reel. Colin Farrell plays an alcoholic screenwriter named Marty who in typical Hollywood fashion has the high-concept title for his screenplay — “Seven Psychopaths” — but no actual story. Problem is, he’s only got one psycho, and that’s a Buddhist who doesn’t believe in violence; and so Marty aspires, rather hopelessly, to make a pacifist violence flick. (Of course, that’s arguably already been done, by Zhang Yimou and Jet Li in “Hero.”)
Marty’s aspiring actor friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) thinks that’s a terrible idea, and places a classified ad calling for actual psychos to come tell them their stories. First up is a creepy old dude played by Tom Waits cradling a white rabbit in his arms. As if having an actual serial killer stop by your house for a chat wasn’t bad enough, further complications arise when Billy’s sideline in dognapping with aging con man Hans (Walken) attracts the attention of actual psychotic mobster Charlie (Harrelson), whose beloved shih tzu they steal. He wants it back, and starts killing people to get it.
McDonagh deploys his various story strands like a canny pitcher working the plate: Some of the time we’re in Marty’s imagination as he describes the outlandish and oh-so-Hollywood scenes from his script; other times we’re in the arguments between Billy and Marty over what would make a good movie — the Stallone-ish graveyard shootout that Billy imagines is about the funniest thing you’ll see all year. There are moments of actual tension — when Hans’ hospitalized wife Maya (Linda Bright Clay) is threatened by a murderous Charlie — and then McDonagh will dismiss them with a knowing gag line such as, “You can’t let the animals die in a movie, just the women.” (And this also works as an in-joke; the film couldn’t get past the ratings board until it removed footage of the shih tzu getting shot.)
At times, “Seven Psychopaths” does seem a bit too much like a drinking session what-if — “What if Quentin Tarantino directed ‘Adaptation’?” — and it rambles along in a similarly digressive fashion. But these days there’s something to be said for a film that deliberately bucks the boring old three-act narrative — not just bucks, but flips the bird at it — and decides to include every good joke it stumbles upon.
Schizophrenic? Yes. Demented? Yes. Scattered? Yes. But it’s endearingly strange, infinitely quotable, and with a great cast let off their leash. Cult status for sure.