‘Seven Psychopaths’ Lays Waste To Many Action Movie Cliches

Seven Psychopaths movie poster

Leave it to playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh to find ways to skewer those endless clichés we keep seeing in action movies. Seriously, it feels like so many directors outside of Quentin Tarantino have tackled them to where we are completely burned out on films which try to show how clever they are in taking apart clichés which have long since been torn apart time and time again.

McDonagh’s film “Seven Psychopaths” appears to be another one of those satirical and incredibly violent action movies on the surface, but underneath it all is a surprisingly moving story about friendship. Now I can already hear a lot of people telling me how using violence to tell a story like this is utterly hypocritical, but they are clearly not aware of McDonagh’s plays like “The Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” or “A Behanding in Spokane,” and they clearly have not seen his previous movie, the brilliant “In Bruges.” All those works do have a high level of blood and violence in them, but they are not simply designed to shock people. Instead, McDonagh uses those elements to get at a deeper truth about life and the people closest to us, and this is not always apparent to those who view his work from a distance.

The movie stars Colin Farrell as Marty Faranan, a struggling writer who is eager to finish his screenplay which is also titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem is he spends far more time getting drunk on wine and beer than he does in writing anything. So far, the only idea Marty has come up with is a Quaker psychopath who finds an interesting way to follow someone to the afterlife (I won’t dare give it away here). His actor friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help him, but he is caught up in his part time business of dog kidnapping with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken). With this business, they cleverly managed to abduct dogs, and then they return them to their owners for a reward.

One of the dogs Billy kidnaps, however, turns out to be a Shih Tzu named Bonnie which belongs to Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a vicious gangster who has far more love for animals than he does for humanity. This forces Marty, Billy and Hans to go on the run as Charlie and his henchmen will stop at nothing to get little Bonnie back. While making their getaway, they come to look at what has become of their lives and of how they need one another’s friendship to survive in such a competitive world.

Now combining comedy with violence (and we are talking very bloody violence here) is never an easy mix as it often feels uneven in most movies which attempt it. Bobcat Goldthwait tried it earlier this year with “God Bless America” which had its two main characters going on a crime spree in which they killed off various spoiled rotten celebrities with extreme prejudice. While Goldthwait mostly succeeded with that film, he was walking a thin line between success and failure as his subject matter proved to be very controversial.

McDonagh has it a little easier than Goldthwait though as, while the struggles of these Hollywood wannabe characters does feel a bit realistic, the story has him dealing with a number of seriously deranged characters, all of whom seem comfortably removed from reality. And as he did with “In Bruges,” McDonagh does a wonderful job of combining some laugh out loud moments with scenes of strong emotion. As a result, you never are sure what exactly will happen from one scene to the next.

In movies like these, Colin Farrell appears to be having the most fun as an actor. After appearing in the needless remake of “Total Recall,” he fares much better as a writer who is afflicted with self-doubt and is not always the nicest person to be around. But the joy of watching Farrell here is seeing his character grow as a person right up to the film’s conclusion, and he is much better at accomplishing this than many typically give him credit for.

Watching Sam Rockwell as Billy Bickle once again reminds us how he is a powder keg of creativity and is as unpredictable as most actors get these days. Rockwell is endlessly entertaining as his character takes some interesting twists and turns throughout the movie, and he almost steals the show as he performs for Farrell’s and Walken’s characters what he thinks is the best climax of an action flick ever. The audience I saw this with at Arclight Hollywood ended up applauding him when he was finished, and you do not always see this happening in a movie theater.

Then there is Christopher Walken who still appears to be going back and forth from being a brilliant actor to one who engages in self-parody a bit too much (“I gotta have more cowbell!”). But as Hans, Walken gives one of his very best performances in a long time as he perfectly captures the character’s giddiness at how he makes a living to unveiling a deep pain which he can no longer hide when tragedy overtakes his life. All the way up to his last moment onscreen, Walken is a marvel and a thrill to watch.

Woody Harrelson himself has been on a roll in movies for the past few years, and his performance as Charlie Costello is absolutely inspired. You come out of “Seven Psychopaths” feeling like Harrelson was born to play this role, and this is saying something when you consider Mickey Rourke was originally cast as Charlie before he had some sort of falling out with McDonagh. But this character brings out that wonderful comic touch Harrelson consistently gave off in “Cheers” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and it also showcases the uninhibited darkness which he unforgettably portrayed in “Rampart” and “Natural Born Killers.” Harrelson can go from being funny to frightening in zero seconds flat, and you do not even have to be a pesky paparazzi photographer to see this.

There are also some terrific turns from Kevin Corrigan and Željko Ivanek as two of Costello’s hoods, and Tom Waits is wonderful in a supporting role as a remorseful psychopath. The movie is also aided by a great film score by Carter Burwell, an excellent production design from David Wasco, and some beautiful cinematography from Ben Davis.

The only place “Seven Psychopaths” falters is in its use of female characters. Abbie Cornish portrays Kaya, Marty’s girlfriend, and she gets very little to do here other than get insulted by Marty and Billy and look pretty pissed off about it. While Cornish does look beautiful when she is pissed, we all know she is capable of much more.

Olga Kurylenko also shows up as Costello’s girlfriend, Angela, and she is a wonderful presence as well but has also been given a role which is smaller than she deserves. Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame fares a little better as Sharice, the girl who accidently loses Costello’s beloved Shih Tzu, but this role is meant as nothing more than a cameo. But considering Cornish and Kurylenko get top billing, you cannot help but expect them to have better characters to play here.

Still, “Seven Psychopaths” is a very entertaining movie and a must for any fan of McDonagh. Yes, it is violent and plays around with all those things which keep getting repeated ad nausea in action movies, but it also is about wanting something more in a story than just guys with guns. I will leave it up to you the viewer to see how McDonagh accomplishes this here.

Also, it will also leave you wondering about the following question: does a human head explode if you shoot it in the right spot? This same question was asked in Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz,” and inquiring minds are still looking for an answer.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Martin McDonagh on the Making of ‘Seven Psychopaths’

Martin McDonagh on the set of Seven Psychopaths

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012 when this screening took place.

Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh dropped by Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood for a Q&A about his movie “Seven Psychopaths.” It features a terrific ensemble cast which includes Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits and Olga Kurylenko, and it follows the exploits of a writer who is desperate to finish his screenplay even as his friends inadvertently get him involved in the kidnapping of a gangster’s beloved dog.

“Seven Psychopaths” is McDonagh’s follow up to his brilliant movie “In Bruges,” but it turns out he wrote the script for it after he finished writing “In Bruges.” He explained he made “In Bruges” first because the script for “Seven Psychopaths” had a “canvas that was way too big for a first-time filmmaker.” This movie certainly has a lot of layers as it deals with multiple characters and storylines, and many of the characters have more to reveal about themselves than we realize at first glance.

The evening’s moderator said she once heard how McDonagh had admired Christopher Walken as a child, and McDonagh said he felt we all did as much as we respected Harry Dean Stanton (who has a cameo in the movie) or Tom Waits. It also turns out this was not the first time McDonagh had worked with Walken on a project.

Martin McDonagh: I did a play in New York with Christopher and Sam Rockwell about three years ago (“A Behanding in Spokane”), so I had that in. It was a dream come true to have Chris on set and doing his stuff.

McDonagh recalled the atmosphere on the set of “Seven Psychopaths” as being “strangely a lot of fun,” and the audience at Arclight Hollywood could certainly sense all the fun this cast of actors had. When asked if there was any improvisation, he said everyone pretty much stuck to the screenplay despite some exceptions.

MD: There were some little bits at the end of the shootout sequence in the graveyard, but everything else was on the page. The actors were so good that they made every line seem like they had come up with it on the spot. I think that’s the secret of truthful acting; to make it seem like it’s all improvised.

The dog playing Bonny was a Shih Tzu who is also named Bonny in real life, and McDonagh was great in describing how this one got cast.

MD: There were four or five Shih Tzus that came in to the casting couch. Bonny seemed more kind of edgy and the others were all ribbons and shampooed. Bonny felt like early De Niro.

McDonagh also made it clear if he knew the possibility of all those puns which made it into the movie’s advertisements like “they won’t take any Shih Tzu,” he would have gone with a German Shepherd instead. But it came down to deciding what would be the most incongruous dog for Harrelson’s gangster character to have, and Shih Tzus are so irresistibly cute. Bonny was apparently very sweet to work with, and the cast, especially Walken, spoiled the dog like crazy.

The main character played by Farrell is a writer named Marty Faranan, and Faranan is McDonagh’s middle name. However, aside from the middle name and the alcoholism, McDonagh claimed there are no connections between him and this character. McDonagh did however say what Marty wanted to accomplish with his script is the same thing he wanted to accomplish with this movie.

MD: The speech that Marty has at the start about wanting to make a film called “Seven Psychopaths” but still wanting it to be about love and peace is kind of where I was coming from. It’s really about friendship and for searching for something beyond movies about guys with guns. At the same time, it was a crazy guys with guns violent movie.

One of the best things about “Seven Psychopaths” is how it satirizes action movies and the clichés which continue to overrun them. The moderator talked of how there are certain conventions in them which seem to imply how you cannot kill a dog but that you can kill a woman, and McDonagh freely admitted he is constantly rankled by them as much he is from the notes he gets from studio executives.

MD: When you have a character putting a gun to a dog’s head you get a thousand notes about that, but not one about shooting someone in the stomach. Not one.

In terms of his cinematic influences, McDonagh cited the films of Sam Peckinpah and Terence Malick as being major ones on his cinematic work. When it comes to “Seven Psychopaths” however, he admitted Peckinpah was definitely the bigger influence. Other filmmakers whom he looks up to include Akira Kurosawa who made the classic “Seven Samurai,” Martin Scorsese whose film “Mean Streets” was a big influence on this film, Preston Sturges who made screwball comedies like “The Lady Eve,” and Billy Wilder whose darkly comic and satirical films he admires. Clearly, McDonagh is more influenced by old school filmmaking than he is by current mainstream entertainment

Martin McDonagh has more than earned his place among the greatest and most inspired playwrights working today, and his work as a filmmaker keeps getting better and better. “Seven Psychopaths” is a very clever movie which deserves a big audience, and it was great to see him take the time to come down to Arclight Hollywood to talk about its making.

‘Cold War’ Beautifully Contemplates The Things We Do for Love

Cold War 2018 movie poster

It has now been over a week since I watched Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” and it is rightly described in the production notes as being “an impossible love story in impossible times.” Indeed, there is something about love which forms a bond which cannot always be described in words. The two star-crossed lovers we see here share a love for music, but their differences come to the surface more often than not to where you wonder why they keep reuniting time and time again. Pawlikowski never tries to provide an absolute answer as to why these two individuals cannot end their deep affections for one another, but he doesn’t need to as some things cannot be put into words.

Thinking about “Cold War” somehow brought to mind one of my favorite songs by Howard Jones entitled “What is Love?”. This song was released back in the 1980’s which marked the start of America being seduced by infinite greed, but I was just a kid who had yet to have his innocence ripped away from him. The music really took me in as the synthesizer melodies were a big favorite of mine back then, but the lyrics have since taken on a deeper meaning for me:

“I love you whether or not you love me

I love you even if you think that I don’t

Sometimes I find you doubt my love for you, but I don’t mind

Why should I mind, why should I mind?

What is love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?”

“Cold War” seeks to ask those same questions as it transports us back to post-war Poland in the 1950’s where we meet Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot), a musical director at Mazurek, a nascent folk arts ensemble which, as one of its instructors makes very clear, deals with the music of “pain and humiliation.” In the process of auditioning new singers, he comes across the young Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) who is fearless in continuing her performance even after she is told to stop. It’s a thrilling scene as these two individuals from different parts of life are quick to lock eyes and create a connection not easily formed in the average Nicholas Sparks cinematic adaptation.

Wiktor comes from a more refined and educated world while Zula comes from, as some may say, the wrong side of town. Their attraction to one another is instant. Is it a fascination with a person’s past history? Wiktor is told Zula stabbed her father with a knife, and this of course makes him wonder why someone would do such a thing. When he asks her why, her answer is blunt and to the point, “He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference.” We never even learn which part of the body the knife pierced.

Their differences are strong, but there is an unmistakable bond between them which will not break. As “Cold War” moves on, their relationship stretches over a decade and several different locations including Poland, Warsaw, East Berlin and Paris. They become involved with others, but the love they have for one another will not die an easy death. You keep waiting for one of them to tell the other “I wish I knew how to quit you” because they cannot get themselves to leave the other be. Wiktor tells Zula to find “another normal guy” who can support you to which she replies, “Such man is not born yet.” This happens around the movie’s midpoint, and by then it is unlikely such a man will ever be born.

Is this real love, or is it just obsession? Such answers do not matter because all you need to know is how strong Wiktor’s and Zula’s bond is. You can question it all you want, but the love is there even if it exists in a state of emotional torture. John Lennon once sang of how love is real, but Nazareth made it clear that love hurts, and the love these two mismatched souls have for one another seems to exist in a space between those two thoughts.

Just like Mike Leigh did with “Mr. Turner,” Pawlikowski does a brilliant job of taking us back to a time and place to where I felt truly transported to another era. I never questioned the authenticity of what was being presented because it all felt so real to me, and Łukasz Żal’s black and white cinematography is simply gorgeous to take in. It makes me wonder why we don’t get more black and white movies these days. While the lack of colors may seem limiting to filmmakers in general, there is something about the monochrome look which gets everything just right.

What’s especially commendable about “Cold War” is how epic this love story is, and yet Pawlikowski fits everything into a running time which is just below 90 minutes. The movie felt so much longer than that, and yet I came out of it feeling like I saw something immense and wide-ranging.

Tomasz Kot is one those actors who has this smoldering intensity about him. I remember William Petersen having this same kind of intensity in “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Manhunter,” and it’s as if he doesn’t have to do much to generate any kind of charisma. I am envious and, I have to admit, a bit resentful of actors who can pull this off, but he also lets you see what is going on in his mind as his character of Wiktor suffers through a maddening heartbreak and career setbacks which have him trading the music he loves out for something more politically friendly. You have to admire the subtle acting he does here as it is never easy for anyone to pull off.

Joanna Kulig is every bit Kot’s equal as Zula, and it is fascinating to watch her take this character from being a young student to an adult in an equally subtle way. Kulig also excels at spelling out what is going through Zula’s head to where she needs no dialogue to spell out her feelings, and she is fearless in portraying the character’s constant struggle to escape the confines of a life which keeps putting her into a corner.

“Cold War” is one of the most immersive cinematic experiences I got to witness in 2018, and I hope any phobias you have about movies with subtitles do not keep you from seeing it. The love story is harrowing, but the visuals are beautiful. It’s hard to find movies these days which suck you into their settings the way this one has, and it serves as a reminder of how powerful cinema can be.

Pawlikowski has said this movie is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by his parents who kept splitting up and getting back together time and time again. Why do couples do this to themselves? It seems unhealthy, and yet some cannot tear themselves away from a mad love story. But once again, he is not out to answer what he believes love really is. I guess he just wanted to know their love was real in some unspoken way. With “Cold War,” I believe he has accomplished just that.

* * * * out of * * * *