Tuesday 12 December 2017

Psychopaths tear into crime caper

Paul Whitington

film of the week

Seven Psychopaths (16, general release, 110 minutes)

Director: Martin McDonagh Stars: Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Abbie Cornish


Psychopaths tear into crime caper

Martin McDonagh must think making films is easy. His first effort as director, the 2006 short Six Shooter, won an Oscar, and his first feature, the wordy but enjoyable In Bruges, earned him wide praise, a BAFTA and a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination back in 2008.

Nothing to it then, and McDonagh's enhanced reputation has given him access to an impressive cast for this expansive and typically violent tale set in and around Los Angeles.

Colin Farrell plays what might have been the stock character of an Irish screenwriter with a drink problem and a looming deadline.

Marty Faranan thinks his idea for a film about a Buddhist psychopath who overcomes some colourful enemies is a good one, but he keeps changing his mind, and has come down with a bad case of writer's block. This he treats with lashings of hooch.

Marty, though, has a firm friend in Billy (Sam Rockwell), an amiable con artist who is constantly coming up with ideas for Marty's script.

Suspiciously good ideas, in fact, because though Billy makes ends meet by stealing dogs, he also knows a thing or two about violence, as Marty will soon discover.

Billy's dog-napping accomplice is Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken), a colourful character with a nasty scar on his neck and an unshakeable belief in God.

When he and Billy inadvertently steal a mutt that belongs to a touchy criminal called Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), they drag Marty into a tit-for-tat cycle of violence that quickly escalates beyond their control.

McDonagh's films bear a tangential relationship to those of Quentin Tarantino.

Like Tarantino's movies, McDonagh's aren't merely comedies or crime dramas but loaded deconstructions charged with irony.

In other words, they want it both ways, to be taken seriously as human dramas and appreciated as wry, intellectualising critiques.

Sometimes this approach works (Inglorious Basterds), sometimes it doesn't (Grindhouse), and Seven Psychopaths is very much a game of two halves. Films usually start strongly then sag in the final third, but curiously, McDonagh's film does it the other way around.

Seven Psychopaths opens frenetically, wordily and un-cinematically: Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell talk a lot, spouting notions that seem to bear little relation to their characters.

Things, however, begin to settle down once Walken gets involved.

He's a sublime character actor, and his gravel voice and wandering eyes could imbue the phone book with gravitas and meaning.

He's excellent as the sad-eyed Hans, whose devotion to his dying wife provides the film with its first genuine emotion.

And having started so uncertainly, Seven Psychopaths really picks up in its last 40 minutes, when Marty, Billy and Hans take to the California deserts with a furious Charlie hot on their trail.

Once his story has been pared down to a stagey three-hander, McDonagh really comes into his own as a writer, and the interactions between Rockwell, Farrell and the brilliant Walken fizz with intelligence and wit.

There are some nice cameos early on, too, particularly from Tom Waits, who plays a rather unctuous killer and now looks like Bert Lahr from The Wizard of Oz.

There's a lot to enjoy in Seven Psychopaths, which at times is genuinely memorable and funny. But when McDonagh stops deconstructing cinema and starts wholeheartedly making it, the results should be much more interesting.

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