Dog Day Afternoon
Warning: This review throws up a plot point or two.
Seven Psychopaths is a deadpan gangster movie about gangster movies; a self-reflexive and often very funny excavation of the genre, run through with a dry, devil-may-care style that will be familiar to fans of Martin McDonagh’s previous, In Bruges. Now, as then, he upends audience expectations with playful exuberance and the kind of craic spoken rather than inhaled, making fun of genre clichés while simultaneously employing them; a trick you can get away with if, as the foreword of the Quentin Tarantino playbook makes clear, you’re canny enough to both amuse and surprise your audience while doing it.
Consequently no-one’s going to mind that McDonagh’s movie relegates feminoids to nigh-on silent roles, or that female nudity, in the movie’s well observed and very funny fantasy sequences, is crowbarred in with gratuitous effect*, or that the first act sets up a revenge arc with a violent pay off that, though ridiculed in-movie by Collin Farrell’s would-be screenwriter, the director is compelled to deliver – because each cliché is lovingly recalled and tagged with a punchline: that’s how you do post-modernism without making the backs of audience members arch like riled moggies.
McDonagh may be wary of the formula that’s weaned his audience, even if one senses he likes it, but he’s also suspicious of the many lips that have licked the bottle’s teat. The movie opens with a pan from the Hollywood sign to two assassins discussing their quarry. One thing is immediately apparent: they have trouble differentiating between movie gangsters and the occupants of the real world. This is Seven Psychopaths recurring motif; the deft blending of fact and fiction and the way the latter warps our real world perspective. Characters’ expectations are framed and subverted, relative to their understanding of stock movie tropes.
Farrell’s Marty is trying to write a screenplay, one that happens to have the same title as this movie, but, like so many of us, doesn’t have two ideas to spark together. He’s reliant on real world killers and their outlandish anecdotes to fill pages: taking reality and repackaging it as crime movie schlock. In contrast, friend and dog thief Billy, the joyously unhinged Sam Rockwell, uses the same schlock as a roadmap through reality. If that sounds like some pseudo-intellectual exercise in filmic deconstruction, relax; the sum total amounts to little more than expletive strewn banter, rhetorical movie questions – “I don’t think a head would explode just because you shot it” – and a host of zingers, yet all the while there’s wry commentary on the complicated relationship the movies have with their audience.
McDonagh has a better ear for comic dialogue than a mastery of tone; some scenes, particularly the brutal execution of Christopher Walken’s spouse feel incongruous with the rest; but Seven Psychopaths is consistently sharp and occasionally gut-kickingly funny. It’s also further evidence that dog owners are mentally ill people hiding in plain sight.
*Abi Cornish is a particularly good sport, agreeing to appear in what amounts to a wet t-shirt scene in the name of, er, giving it to the male audience with both barrels.