“He’s the best writer of his generation but he needs to stay focused,” says loose cannon Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) of his buddy Martin (Colin Farrell), an Irish screenwriter adrift in Hollywood trying to finish his latest screenplay, Seven Psychopaths .
It’s something that may, one day, be said about Martin McDonagh of In Bruges fame, but not this time.
In his second film, a loopy, loop-filled black comedy, it’s impossible to separate what’s witty self-reflexivity from what’s simply an Irish screenwriter adrift in Hollywood trying to finish his latest screenplay. Still, there’s fun to be had trying.
Like those post-Tarantino gangster farces that proliferated in the 1990s, Seven Psychopaths introduces a series of explosive LA characters – Martin and his wife (Abbie Cornish), Billy and Hans (Christopher Walken), who kidnap dogs for money, bonkers gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who loves his shih tzu, not to mention the eponymous septet of serial killers, who may or may not be fictional – then waits for them to messily intersect.
Each new arrival is either famous (Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Pitt, Precious ’ Gabourey Sibide), insane, or both, as if creator and creation have become overly giddy with the possibilities of Hollywood.
Just as (fictional) Martin becomes distracted by Billy, Hans and Charlie, so too does (real) Martin allow this average crime caper to become untethered, letting his larger-than-life characters steer it into crazily metatextual territory.
One standout sequence shows Bickle acting out what should happen next in Martin’s film: all exploding heads and bouncing boobs. It’s both a tour de force, and precisely the sort of crap McDonagh won’t let himself make, however much he threatens to.
Although Rockwell and Walken have lots of fun out-whackjobbing each other, and the dialogue is profanely, profoundly silly-smart, what’s anarchy and what’s untidiness is constantly up for debate. “We making French movies now?” asks Bickle as the narrative takes a talky about-turn.
Elsewhere Hans tells Martin, truthfully, “Your women characters are awful.” But if McDonagh can see what’s wrong, why not fix it rather than satirise it?
Viewed in this light, perhaps the freewheeling plot is a get-out-of-jail-free card for a writer who doesn’t quite know what to do next, rather than evidence of his (undisputed) originality? Whatever it is, you’d be mental to miss it – a little more focus and he may yet earn that accolade.