Seven Psychopaths opens with the murder of two hitmen, distracted from their vigilance by a meandering conversation about shooting people in the eyeball. This scene immediately sets the tone for Martin McDonagh's second feature as a director, with its self-consciously movie-sharp dialogue, bursts of sudden violence, and recognisable faces filling even the most expendable roles. McDonagh's debut film In Bruges had a great deal to admire before it collapsed in a dismal third act, but the new film doesn't build on that picture's promising aspects and instead we find McDonagh indulging in his least appealing excesses. McDonagh is undoubtedly a very clever man, but Seven Psychopaths appears to be about nothing more than its own cleverness.
Apparently written as a means of dealing with his own creative blockage, Seven Psychopaths is the story of a Hollywood-based Irish screenwriter named Marty (Colin Farrell), who is struggling with his latest project. He has already come up with a promising title – Seven Psychopaths – and he has a few scraps of ideas, but these ideas are leading him nowhere. Marty's best friend Billy, a reckless motormouth played with energetic relish by Sam Rockwell, jabbers away constantly in his ear, regaling the writer with tall tales and urban myths that he hopes will earn him a co-writer credit, and we see some of these stories in brief vignettes. A Viet Cong guerrilla dressed as a Catholic priest fraternises with an American prostitute; a Quaker seeks vengeance against the man who murdered his daughter. Later, a newspaper advert calling for psychopaths to share their own stories turns up Tom Waits, who recounts his days as a serial killer seeking out and murdering other psychopaths. How on earth is Marty – or McDonagh – supposed to fit all of this into his script?
Wayward and overstuffed, Seven Psychopaths never settles into any kind of rhythm or finds a satisfying narrative path. The movie is constantly interrupting and contradicting itself, and the impact of every event is undermined by a thick coating of irony. The film partially resembles Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation in its construction, deliberately torpedoing its own narrative structure to let one of its characters take command of the screenplay. As Rockwell's Billy grabs hold of Seven Psychopaths the film spirals out of control, but there's a sense that McDonagh wants to have it both ways with his critique of Hollywood storytelling structure, and this is never more evident than in the way the film's female characters are treated. Gabourey Sidibe, Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko deserve better than the cheap roles afforded to them here (Kurylenko's screen time is laughably truncated despite her prominence on the poster); and while McDonagh makes this part of the big joke, having characters criticise Marty's ability to write women, it's a joke that leaves a nasty aftertaste.
Too much of Seven Psychopaths is like that. McDonagh is a gifted writer and with this cast spouting his dialogue the film undeniably has its amusing moments, but the picture is too cruel, contrived and soulless to be really funny. Whereas the narrative transitions in Adaptation felt organic and thematically sound, the road Seven Psychopaths ultimately goes down feels forced, and there's nothing like the emotional heft that Kaufman's script created between the two protagonists. The only resonance here comes from Christopher Walken, whose distinctive delivery feels so right for McDonagh, and whose lived-in performance as a dognapper with a shady past comes closest to providing Seven Psychopaths with its one character who feels real. The best scene in the film is one of its quietest, a hospital face-off between Walken and Woody Harrelson's agitated gangster, and the quality of such small moments makes me despair that so much talent and potential has been wasted on this empty and nasty shaggy-dog story.