Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS                   B-                   
Great Britain  (110 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Martin McDonagh            Official site

Of the three films released by the McDonagh brothers, including Martin’s In Bruges (2008) and John Michael’s The Guard (2011), this is easily the weakest of the three, another black comedy that takes pains with the audience to explain the multiple ideas in conceiving a story, that becomes more about the process of writing, digressing into multiple side stories, always feeling experimental and incomplete, never really feeling much like an actual movie.  Part of the problem is the overly self-conscious nature of the film, a film about the making of a movie, which stops every so often and shares with the audience where it wants to go before it goes there, a device that often does not work.  This may work better in a theater production, where on different nights the actors might actually change the story and use the same clues to different outcomes.  But in a movie, first and foremost there needs to be sustained suspense, dramatic conflict and tension, which is all but absent when the story continually stops as the characters examine the choices to be made, always discussing the possible outcomes before they happen, so when they do, it’s not much of a surprise.  The technique of exposing the writing as the film is progressing is a difficult undertaking, often interfering in the overall interest, where some will find this continually annoying.  Perhaps the best example of this is the highly popular road movie Y TU MAMA TAMBIÉN (2001) by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, an otherwise funny and highly entertaining film that is constantly interrupted by a narrator who literally stops the film in order to add some often cheeky narration, a device the interferes with the rhythm and actually changes the pace of the film.  Similarly, Spike Jonze working on a continually evolving Charlie Kaufman screenplay in ADAPTATION (2002) is another headspinner, literally a screenplay about a screenwriter writing a screenplay adaptation of a book.  Some may find this device clever, while others will find it distracting and overly cute. 

In the two earlier works, the writing of the McDonagh brothers is risqué, marvelously inventive, and among the more hilarious films seen in the past few years, and this is a wacky and thoroughly enjoyable adventure as well, where superb acting is always a key to their work.  But this film continually gets sidetracked and bogged down, where the action literally stops as the characters themselves mull over what happens next.  Colin Farrell as Marty is the boozehound screenwriter living in the gorgeous LA digs with the beautiful dame, Abbie Cornish as a trophy girlfriend, while best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is continually hovering around him conspiring to change Marty’s life, especially the alcoholism, where the first change seems to be getting Marty kicked out of his girlfriend’s house for his outrageous behavior while drunk, which, of course, he can’t remember.  As he reviews what he’s got so far, writing a new movie script, all he has is a title, as he hasn’t figured out who the psychopaths are or what they do yet.  Billy throws ideas at him left and right, telling him stories or offering newspaper clippings, and slowly, the ideas come, which are visualized onscreen as psychopath #1 and #2, etc. expressed in vignette fashion until the list is complete.  Meanwhile Billy has a side con game going with Hans (Christopher Walken), where they steal pet dogs in a busy upscale block where there’s so much activity it’s easy not to notice the pets are even missing, and then return them as Good Samaritans for a cash reward.  This operation produces steady income until they steal the wrong guy’s dog, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a local gangster who goes on a rampage trying to find him.  Meanwhile several other so-called psychopaths are on the loose, all allegedly creating mayhem, but they seem to get mixed up in a constantly evolving world of ideas/fantasy/stories where they continually get lost, only to be pulled out of a hat later.  

Undoubtedly, there is some brilliant dialogue written here, and some hilarious lines that almost get lost in the weirdness of what’s happening, where truth and fiction merge as a writer’s ideas are expressed in fantasy scenes, where underneath it all a script is being developed, and there are flashback sequences of various stories being told, all mixed together in a strange brew that doesn’t really hold together the abundance of ideas being offered.  There is a theatricality to the way ideas continually accumulate, but there is little tension or build up of suspense, so when events eventually happen, they feel more like random and isolated events rather than something connected to a whole.  The strength of the film is in its characters, where Rockwell in particular, along with Walken, are as good as they’ve been in years, where they have a brilliantly developed scene in a bar late in the film where Marty is telling Hans (with Billy trying to stop him) the story of the Buddhist/Amish/Quaker psychopath which resonates deeply with Hans, where Tom Waits has an equally compelling backstory, along with a Viet Cong monk who thinks the war is not really over.  Part of the problem is the director’s curious strategy to open the film a certain way, meeting the audience’s expectations, giving them plenty of action scenes, building up the suspense, but then going into a KILL BILL Pt. 2 (2004) style meditation on everything that’s come before, slowing everything down into an utter calm where each character seems to wander off in their own directions.  Never feeling much like a cohesive whole afterwards, instead it’s an obsessive passion on creating individual vignettes strewn together, like an opening scene, Tom Waits’ flashback, a bravura graveyard sequence, the expendable (mis)treatment of women, a hooker that learns to speak Vietnamese at Yale, a tape recorded monologue, a final shoot out (with a gun that jams) set in the desert of a national park next to a sign reading “no shooting allowed,” where by the end it’s questionable whether the project actually works or not.  Was it hilarious?  Individual moments, Hell yes, but does it make us care or come together and work collectively like some kind of existentialist take on writing or living in the modern world, probably not.

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