Writer’s block can be a pain in the backside – or a bullet to the head – if, like Marty (Colin Farrell) in Martin McDonagh’s fun, knockabout ‘Seven Psychopaths’, you’re a movie scribe whose ideas make more impact in real life than on the page. Marty is a boozy Irish writer in Hollywood who complains to his livewire pal Billy (Sam Rockwell) that he needs inspiration to write a script called ‘Seven Psychopaths’. The result is more blood on the carpet than ink on paper.
Billy is partly a psychopath magnet, partly a writer’s dangerous inner voice made real. He and his cravat-sporting older pal Hans (Christopher Walken) are petty thieves who kidnap a shih tzu dog from a Mafia boss (Woody Harrelson) who wants his pup back – and Marty gets dragged into the whole violent affair. Meanwhile, Billy tries to help Marty by putting an ad in the paper for psychos; and they end up with a disturbed ageing killer (Tom Waits) on the doorstep.
Sundry nutters come and go (look out for a cameo from the legendary Harry Dean Stanton) as Marty finds himself at the centre of exactly the sort of bloody, macho melodrama he’d rather not be writing. Head-in-hands becomes Marty’s default position, and Farrell offers a good line in manic despair and passive exasperation.
You’ll have guessed that we’re in self-reflective, hall-of-mirrors movie territory for British-Irish writer McDonagh’s second feature-length film (after 2008’s ‘In Bruges’). There’s something a little turn-of-the-century about ‘Seven Psychopaths’, with its comic approach to violence, movie-in-a-movie navel-gazing and ample backstreet LA locations. The films of Quentin Tarantino (‘Pulp Fiction’) and Charlie Kaufman (‘Adaptation’) inevitably come to mind – but McDonagh is less saturated in film and pop culture than Tarantino and less prone than Kaufman to disappear down story wormholes.
What saves ‘Seven Psychopaths’ from being po-faced or tedious is its sharp-as-knives humour, energetic pacing, knack for surprising asides and fun performances from a cast that has a certain wow factor when piled up together. It’s undoubtedly a very male enterprise, and McDonagh acknowledges this, even if he doesn’t explain it: ‘Your women characters are awful,’ is Hans’s reproach to Marty at one point. The nods to bungled creativity and winks at questions of screen violence offer something to chew on. But above all, this is violent, seedy farce, pure and simple, and it’s McDonagh’s zippy script that keeps it ticking over until all the trousers have been dropped at knifepoint and the custard pies been lobbed with malice.