Friday, October 12, 2012

Seven Psychopaths: Deranged in all the wrong ways

Seven Psychopaths (2012) • View trailer
One star. Rating: R, and generously, for strong violence and gore, pervasive profanity, sexuality, nudity and drug use
By Derrick Bang

A very thin line separates clever dark comedy from tasteless crap; this film crosses and permanently disfigures that line.

Then again, one probably shouldn’t expect much from a flick titled Seven Psychopaths.

Marty (Colin Farrell, left) only wants to finish his next screenplay. Unfortunately, he gets
sucked into a dog-napping scheme orchestrated by his best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell,
right) and the oddly calm Hans (Christopher Walken). Everything goes to hell when
they snatch a pooch belonging to a violent mob boss, but that's only the tip of the
terrifying iceberg; poor Marty soon finds himself surrounded by all manner of
deranged psychopaths.
But that’s the problem; I did expect better. London-born writer/director Marin McDonagh previously brought us In Bruges, a compelling morality play that delivered precisely the right blend of mordant humor, interpersonal angst and jolting — but not gratuitous — dollops of violence. The film worked on several levels, and McDonagh garnered a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his script.

Apparently, success has gone to his head. Just as apparently, he misjudged which elements made In Bruges work, and has chosen to amplify the wrong stuff for Seven Psychopaths. It’s neither funny nor compelling, and it certainly can’t be called a morality play. This repellant mess barely qualifies as a film; it feels more like a series of disconnected scenes and half-assed concepts, strung together and granted a provocative title, in an effort to trick viewers into purchasing tickets before word gets out.

Don’t be among the victims.

I can’t help wondering what better-skilled purveyors of pop sleaze — such as Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez — would have made of this fitful premise. At the very least, they’d have injected the necessary levels of giddy energy and ghastly insouciance that are wholly absent here. McDonagh obviously intends his long stretches of inane dialogue to capture the mesmerizing wordplay that Tarantino delivers so well, but the results here aren’t even close.

Aside from repugnant, this film is boring. Deadly, deadly dull ... even when it descends to levels of gore more appropriate to direct-to-video horror swill.

Colin Farrell stars as Marty, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter suffering a case of writer’s block that isn’t helped by his tendency to drink too much. He has nothing beyond a catchy high-concept title for his next project: Seven Psychopaths. The gimmick here is that everybody Marty encounters, during the next few days, will offer increasingly vicious and deranged anecdotes, urban legends and (ick!) personal experiences that they believe will “help” Marty flesh out his screenplay.

These sagas unfold as mini-movies themselves, wholly disconnected from the primary storyline.

This may sound clever. It isn’t.

Marty’s best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), is orchestrating a dog-heisting scam with Hans (Christopher Walken); they steal a dog, wait for a reward to be posted, return the pooch and then collect the loot. Then they swipe the wrong canine: a Shih Tzu belonging to a mob boss named Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Charlie gets upset and starts shooting people.

Thing is, Charlie already is out of sorts because somebody has been killing his goons: a masked vigilante who leaves Jack of Diamonds playing cards in his wake. This mysterious individual is the first of this film’s seven psychopaths, so designated by a typewritten “label” that banners across the screen.

Other psychopaths include an unnamed Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen), carrying a raging anger against all Americans — as random a sidebar plot element as could be imagined — and Zachariah (Tom Waits), a senior citizen who carries a white rabbit and confesses to having spent decades as a killer of serial killers.

We don’t need to worry about the white rabbit, or any of the dogs in Billy and Hans’ dubious care. Billy assures us, at one point, that animals never die in Hollywood screenplays. Billy doesn’t lie, although Marty gradually realizes that his good buddy is quite the fruit loop.

McDonagh’s storyline doesn’t have much use for women; they’re either ornamental, or victims, or both. Or serial killers. Abbie Cornish has a thankless few scenes as Marty’s girlfriend. Olga Kurylenko has even less of a part as Angela, Charlie’s girlfriend, who happens to be boffing Billy on the side. Gabourey Sidibe pops up as the dog-walker unlucky enough to be held responsible for losing Charlie’s beloved Shih Tzu.

The sole “real” female character — actually, this film’s only authentic character of any kind — is Myra, Hans’ wife, played with genuine pathos by Linda Bright Clay. Myra, long hospitalized during her gallant fight against cancer, genuinely loves Hans, and is loved in return; he visits her every day. Needless to say, nothing good can come of a relationship this touching ... not in this movie.

McDonagh certainly had no trouble assembling character actors for walk-on parts; additional familiar faces include Harry Dean Stanton, Zeljko Ivanek, Michael Pitt, Kevin Corrigan and quite a few others. But this amounts to little more than stunt casting, given the irrelevance of their material.

At times, McDonagh seems to be trying for the otherworldly “stranger in a strange land” vibe of, say, John Landis’ Into the Night or Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, with Marty as the hapless naïf attempting to survive his increasingly weird and dangerous encounters with all these nutballs. But McDonagh’s script and approach aren’t organized enough to sustain that concept; he’s also much too willing to debase matters by, say, having somebody shoot an attractive woman in the stomach, at point-blank range, and for no apparent reason (other than the fact that she was standing there, I suppose).

We also get to watch people burn to death after being doused by gasoline, or by having their heads removed by a handsaw, or by having their heads blown off by a shotgun, or by being hacked to bits by a chainsaw. McDonagh loves to linger on these displays of carnage; his characters also offer lip service to the deep psychological issues at play, an outrageously brutal affectation that quickly becomes offensive.

A few performers occasionally rise above the material, flickering to life in ways that recall their efforts in other, far better films. Walken is the best at this; some of his dialogue, complete with his dead-eyed stare and twitchy instability, recall his wonderfully intense — and frankly scary — exchange with Dennis Hopper, in True Romance (a Tarantino script, by the way).

In fairness, I must acknowledge that quite a few patrons at Monday evening’s preview screening laughed a lot: often at scenes that seemed to defy humor. Perhaps they saw something, felt something, that eluded me. In equal fairness, it must be mentioned that quite a few other patrons fled the theater, more so as the film continued, leaving in various states of dismay, disgust or disinterest.

Mostly the latter, I should think. Seven Psychopaths simply isn’t worth the time or talent of anybody involved. It’s cruel, random, brutal, misogynistic, depraved and frankly sadistic. That’ll certainly delight the bottom-feeding trolls who gleefully embrace cinematic torture porn, but it’s a startling comedown from the filmmaker who brought us In Bruges.

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