Seven Psychopaths is writer/director Martin McDonagh’s second feature film. McDonagh, probably best know as a playwright, debut feature, In Bruges (2008), was critically accepted and doubled its budget in sales. In Bruges starred Colin Farrell, who takes the role of the central character, Marty, in this film as well. Marty is a screenwriter who is also dealing with a pretty serious case of alcoholism, he is rarely seen without a drink in his hand. It is later pointed out by Marty’s friend that it’s in his nature to be an alcoholic, he is a writer and Irish, two strikes against him. In real life, Farrell is now clean and sober after a lengthy and public battle with alcoholism. He is Irish, as is McDonagh. This should give you a good idea of what kind of layers the movie will be playing with. Fantasy and reality are very much blurred.
Seven Psychopaths begins on the Hollywood Reservoir. Here we find two low level hit man played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt. They are waiting for their mark and out of boredom start up a discussion. One asks the other if he’s every shot a person in the eye. The second man says that he hasn’t but he did stab a man in the ear with an ice pick. The first man says that would be a good story if they were talking about killing guys through the ear, but they’re not. They are discussing eyes right now. Keep this tidbit in mind it may come back. Not that these characters will, a masked man walks up behind them and promptly shoots them in the head, leaves his calling card, The Jack of Diamonds, and exits.
Marty’s close friend and collaborator is Billy (Sam Rockwell). Billy has a pretty good scam worked out, he hangs around dog parks and kidnaps the pooches of the wealthy. He waits a few weeks until a reward is posted and his partner in crime, Hans (Christopher Walken) returns the dog and collects the reward. Good work if you can get it. The plot is set in motion when Billy kidnaps Bonnie, an adorable little Shih Tzu. Bonnie is the beloved dog of crazed gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson) who is willing to shed a lot of blood to get his dog back. Charlie sends a message the only way he knows how, extreme, bloody, and personal violence. Marty, Billy, and Hans tail it out of Los Angeles and hide out in the desert. Clearly they are running from Charlie, but what is their plan? Billy wants nothing more than to have a good old fashioned shoot out in the desert, just like the ones in the movies. Marty needs to sober up and finish his script. Charlie killed Hans’ wife in cold blood, and now Hans needs some time to grieve.
While they are camping in the desert, they rally together and try to help Marty write his script. Marty has a title for a story, but no story. Billy has dreams and aspirations of being a screenwriter, but not an actual screenwriter. He is a screenwriter the way your brother and co-workers want to be screenwriters: they have loosely connected story elements, some they make up themselves, others they incorporate from stories elsewhere. They just want to act the whole story out in front of you, complete with sound effects. When Billy gets a chance to tell his version of the script to Marty and Hans, he puts on his story with the excitement and exuberance of a young boy. The film cuts back and forth between Billy acting out the scene for Marty and Hans, and creating the scene on screen for us. It is full of guns, explosions, and gratuitous moments. Watching Billy act out the scene, we are reminded of so many times a friend described a movie to us using only their hands and sputtering sound effects. Watching the scene created for the screen, we are reminded of many bad movies we have sat through.
This isn’t a movie within a movie, it’s more like a stories within a story. Sometimes we see dreams, recall past events, or view enactments. At one point Billy places an ad in the LA Weekly for psychopaths to narrate their stories to Marty for inspiration. One such man shows up, Zachariah (Tom Waits), and Marty agrees to record Zachariah’s story and possibly use it for his script, but Marty doesn’t seem that interested in Zachariah’s story. The only thing Marty is interested in is drinking. He says he’s going to fix coffee in the kitchen, but he returns with a beer. Zachariah starts his story, and we see it in flashback while Zachariah narrates. During the story of Zachariah’s past as a serial killer, McDonagh cuts back to the apartment, each time, Marty more and more engaged with the story. This is where McDonagh wants to take us with his film, that the power of story telling, and carrying other’s stories is the most important thing a person can do. I won’t give away who, but the very last thing one of the characters does, is give Marty a story for him to incorporate into the script. Here we come back to the preliminary conversation, eyes versus ears. The audience will use their eyes to watch the story on screen, the characters will use their ears to listen to them. All of the characters divulge stories, repeat stories, and invent stories. Stories are treasured because they inform and explain their actions, they divulge the darkness or kindness within. Each tells a story as if their very life depended on it. It might. This is a violent movie and so it is important that these characters get their story to someone else, in the event of their untimely demise. The issue of authorship is even brought up a few times in the movie for good comic observation. Everyone knows that a telling a story that happened to me is more compelling than telling a story that happened to someone else.
At the conclusion of Billy’s story, Hans says, “I like it. Has a lot of… layers.” There are many more layers in Seven Psychopaths worth attention, an awful lot of inside jokes and observations. Marty’s alcoholism is treated seriously, the killing and slayings are treated almost comically. The animals remain untouched, yet the people drop like flies. Imagine the outrage the public would cry if the dog didn’t make it to the last reel. Yes, the dog survives. The casting of the Shih Tzu is the movies strongest point. Not only does it allow these foul-mouthed characters the opportunity to pronounce the ‘t’ in Shih Tzu, but the dog (also named Bonnie is real life) is docile among frenetic people, poised in the face of certain danger, soft and clean in a harsh and jagged landscape, and adorable whilst among these psychopaths.