Film #12 – Seven Psychopaths (Writer & Director: Martin McDonagh)
I’ve been digging into the Filmspotting podcast, and while I enjoy main hosts Adam and Josh, I really like it when they add Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips. He has a great dry sarcasm that I appreciate and he always manages to sidestep arguments in a biting, yet friendly way. And although I’ve only listened to a handful of episodes, I’ve already caught on to what a huge His Girl Friday fan he is. It must have rubbed off on me because I sat down the other night and revisited the film. It is so incredibly good, but what is most striking to me is that a film that is 70+ years old can feel fresher and more inventive than anything I’ve seen in years. It has to be the fastest film of all time. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell just blow through their lines and the jokes hit before you even realize it. There are parts where it’s like a choose your own adventure story: you have to pick which one of the 6 characters on screen you are going to listen to, something unimaginable now. It’s a film that puts so much faith in its audience and is willing to do insane things as a result. As I was watching, I was thinking just how sad it was that they don’t make ’em like this anymore. While there are many great comedies, I had a hard time thinking of any modern comedies that didn’t rely more on sight gags than the spoken word. Almost every joke in His Girl Friday happens through dialogue.There are some great, subtle physical gags, but most of the film is just rapid-fire dialogue.
Although his stuff is much different, I think Martin McDonagh is one of the few modern writers/directors who puts that much faith in his written comedy (the others being the Coen brothers). In Bruges is so clever in the way the spoken comedy builds that it isn’t surprising it has stayed a cult hit. With Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh has tried something more ambitious and commercial, but the joy of the film still rests in language: how people speak, how they react, how they connive. It isn’t a slapstick riot, but like His Girl Friday and the great talking comedies, it takes so much pleasure in the power of words.
For this type of movie to be successful, you’ve got to have capable actors. While Colin Farrell stunned me with In Bruges, Sam Rockwell is just so good here as Billy. Unlike Cary Grant’s Walter Burns, who uses language and comedy to charm, Billy is funny in spite of himself. He says hilarious things, often off-handedly, without any purpose or intent. McDonagh plays on this to create hilarious discord. Lizz’s and my favorite example is that Billy always takes the question “What?” to mean “Repeat” rather than “Explain”. So he constantly gets in these verbal entanglements with people because his brain thinks literally rather than metaphorically.
In a movie that plays with irony and metatextual genre shit, it is so fantastic that McDonagh made his lead a completely unironic, genuine person. Everything he does is motivated by his desire to help his friend Marty (Colin Farrell). Marty is writing a screenplay about psychopaths, so Billy takes out an ad for psychopaths to come by his house. Billy wants to keep everyone in the desert, so he starts their car on fire. Billy is worried about Marty’s drinking, so he bluntly, seriously, and repeatedly tells him to quit drinking (to amazing comedic effect). Sam Rockwell just plays Billy so straight that there is never a glimmer of recognition in his face about what’s happening (I guess he’s sort of an insane version of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Harry from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang [SUB-NOTE: Why hasn’t McDonagh made a movie with RDJ?!?!!]).
While the characterization is straight, the narrative isn’t. This is a film about film, and things fold in on themselves in brilliant ways. But it isn’t cynical, critical, or masturbatory. What McDonagh is doing serves the narrative, and things that at first seem like deus ex machina quickly become explained logically (that I can’t elaborate on here for spoilerz). The film folds in on itself in an interesting way that actually becomes crucial to the story itself. There were plenty of moments of genuine surprise that kept the story moving and I always felt a step behind McDonagh.
All this being said, I think the film loses some momentum in its final third. It can’t quite find that spark and ingenuity that had propelled it from the start. Locking the narrative in the desert limits some options, but most importantly, the film stops being as much about the interactions between characters as the narrative events that are going to happen. It isn’t that the conclusion is bad, its just that it isn’t as zesty as the rest of the film. A small quibble, though, for an otherwise wonderful film.