Weekend Film Recommendation: Seven Psychopaths

Martin and John Michael McDonagh have earned an estimable reputation for themselves in Hollywood with their offbeat character studies that traverse action, comedy, and drama. Although I have already praised The Guard at RBC, most will be familiar with the work of the younger brother, Martin McDonagh, for In Bruges. This week’s film recommendation is Martin’s most recent feature film, which moves the setting from Europe to Los Angeles, in Seven Psychopaths (2012).

The self-referential hook in the film’s plot is easy to spot. Marty, played by Colin Farrell, is an Irish scriptwriter laboring with a drinking problem (some of the clichés are too obvious to be unintentional) and nothing more than a great working title—“Seven Psychopaths”—for his long overdue next work. Marty’s rare progress on the script relies on infrequent moments of sobriety and inspiration offered by his eccentric friend Billy, played by Sam Rockwell.

Billy’s daytime job is a collaborative effort with Hans, played by Christopher Walken, to kidnap wealthy Angelenos’ dogs only to return them in exchange for a hefty payout. Things take a turn for the unexpected when they happen to kidnap a dog that belongs to Charlie, one of LA’s crime bosses played by Woody Harrelson. Charlie’s love of his dog is so profound that the lengths to which he’ll go to retrieve it are unquestionably psychopathic.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 15.57.53

You’d have to be witless to be surprised by the film’s big reveal, which happens about two-thirds into the film. The stories that Billy has been feeding Marty to enable progress on the script are drawn from characters he himself encounters. Sometimes the script merely reflects what Marty has witnessed, whereas sometimes Marty has reproduced an incriminating story recited to him by Billy.

But where Seven Psychopaths really gets going is in those moments when McDonagh plays around with the meta trope to the point that Marty’s stories presage events before they even unfold around him. Is this a drunken hallucination? Is Marty a supernatural being, capable of commanding events into existence with his pen? Is the world nothing more than a representation of Marty’s own grandiose self-image borne out of psychopathy of his own?

McDonagh is perfectly capable of creating a fun and watchable crime caper, but his real strength is in playing with an audience’s expectations about the genre’s form itself. He seems to delight in ridiculing the pomposity of most action films and the over-blown macho types who typically populate them. Hence his selection of a bunch of pathetic characters to appear as his eponymous psychopaths, who fumble around desperately searching for a purpose worthy of their inflated attention-seeking egos. No such luck, unfortunately – they have to make do with the hand they’re dealt: a crime boss’ pathological inability to hold back tears at the thought of his stolen shih tzu; a pitiful excuse for a final shootout; and a wacky bartender’s effete attachment to a bunny. It’s all there to rescue the audience from having to watch yet another movie that exhausts further the already drab and tired tropes common to the genre.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 15.59.09

Like a few films I’ve reviewed at RBC that toy with the film-making conceit (e.g., see 20,000 Days on Earth or Rubber, among others), the self-referential theme running throughout the film gives the impression that there are a few hidden jokes that aren’t intended for the audience –perhaps McDonagh is guilty of making a few jokes for his own amusement. This would be consistent with the self-obsession of the characters on screen. I certainly wasn’t inclined to begrudge him that much with a film as plainly entertaining as was Seven Psychopaths.


Weekend Film Recommendation: True Romance

After making the second best film of all time that deals with the frustrations surrounding homosexuality in inhospitable environments (I’m referring of course to Top Gun (1986); the top prize goes to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) unless someone chooses to correct me), Tony Scott directed his honed craft of concealing a romantic narrative underneath hyper-violent high-stakes capers in this week’s movie recommendation, True Romance (1993).

Screen shot 2014-01-19 at 23.18.35Christian Slater plays Clarence Worley, a comic book salesman fluent in the language of cult-pop one liners and nerd irreverence. For his birthday, while attending a Sonny Chiba marathon at the local cinema, Clarence meets a prostitute named Alabama, played by Patricia Arquette. When the two instantaneously fall in love and get hitched the next morning, Clarence resolves to liberate Alabama from her indenture to her pimp Drexl (one of Gary Oldman’s more sinister creations). In doing so, he haplessly makes off with a suitcase that he expects contains Alabama’s effects, but that instead contains rather precious cargo belonging to some powerful associates of Drexl. The rest of the movie follows the couple across the country as they try to dispatch the contents of the suitcase. During their journey they reconnect with an old friend and an estranged father, and they become embroiled with brutal mobsters, enterprising cops, indolent roommates, and some of Hollywood’s most burned-out or talentless wretches.

The story is one of Quentin Tarantino’s first, and his stamp is clearly visible. Among other things, fans of his later work will recognize the self-indulgent fondness for gore, obscure movie references (Sonny Chiba was later cast as the sword-smith Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill), and swipes at the vapidity of Hollywood exec culture. Scott’s ability to harness A-list acting talent is a great foil for Tarantino’s slick script. The cast is so star-studded that they make sense together only in a film as replete with machismo as this: you’ll find cameo appearances by Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Val Kilmer, James Gandolfini, and a slew of other actors all known for their bravado.

Screen shot 2014-01-19 at 23.20.44Three performances in particular are commonly cited as standouts. As the layabout stoner Floyd, Brad Pitt showed that his repertoire extended far beyond traditional ‘effortlessly good-looking’ roles. However, the mesmerizing scene between Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s father and Christopher Walken as the mob boss with an agenda deserves to go down as one of the great master-classes in how to combine nail-biting tension with uproarious comedy. It’s spellbinding.

The film is uncommonly violent, as is Tarantino’s wont, so you’d have to remember the title to recall that it is intended first and foremost as a romance movie. However, as romance movies go… there’s just a tad too much racism, cocaine, death, and violence against women for this to qualify as a good date film. But hey, maybe it’ll work for you.

This is one of my favorite films of all time. Watch it, revel in yet another bit of 90’s fun, and try – just try, I defy you – not to enjoy yourself.

It’s trivia time again, RBC. When True Romance was released, Tarantino’s name didn’t appear in the credits (his contribution was recognized only later). Name other films that followed a similar pattern. I’ll allow films credited to Alan Smithee, even though that technically refers to a rather different sequence of events.