By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Do you remember that time in the late 1960s when those two ladies who invited you and your best friend Bob to their cabin in the Catskills probably put something in the turtle soup they served, and afterwards you had strange dreams? Well, filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s black comedy, “Seven Psychopaths,” should remind you of those reveries.
While appropriate for neither the faint of heart nor those who don’t like their film outings in total freefall, the surreal and often grizzly adventure in which Colin Farrell’s screenwriter Marty inadvertently becomes involved works devilishly well, on its level. Of course it rarely makes sense, but that’s the point. Ether jump into the rabbit hole, or don’t.
Marty, on the other hand, has no choice…not really. The successful cinema scribe is suffering a bout of writer’s block, and thus far only has the title for his next Technicolor opus: “Seven Psychopaths.” Yet in the delirious amalgam of idealism and curiosity that comprises the author, he thinks maybe his film script lies in the dangers that soon befall.
Blame his best pal, Billy, a rather strange bird marvelously played by Sam Rockwell, on the tumultuous circumstances. Mysterious in motivation and more baffling than meets the eye, it’s when he and his partner in dognapping, Hans, filch a certifiably deranged gangster’s (Woody Harrelson) Shih Tzu that the insane fun house of derring-do ensues.
The casting of Christopher Walken as Hans assures the pedigree of writer-director McDonagh’s venture into the darker recesses of Filmdom. The whimsically shocking divulgences regarding his and Billy’s characters intersperse a style of attritional violence that consistently surprises. Time and again you assume, ‘No, the director won’t dare.’
But he does, throwing caution to the wind with a gutsy nihilism that, while liberating in its vauntingly iconoclastic veer from the mainstream, nonetheless hints at an obscure, newfound altruism. As if in an aberrant contemporizing of a fable from the Brothers Grimm, McDonagh slyly suggests there is an answer here to something or other…maybe.
Cineastes and littérateurs fond of comparison will be kept busy. While readily a cross between Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985), it’s also easy to attribute some of auteur McDonagh’s style, conscious or not, to an ingratiating form Steinbeck so splendidly created, particularly in “Sweet Thursday.”
It’s about anachronisms and the unlikely little societies that fringe characters form, a warm-the-cockles-of-your-heart optimism when in Steinbeck’s hands, perhaps borrowed from Damon Runyon. These characters make a big to-do out of nothing much, and then downplay or outright ignore that which most perplexes and agonizes us regular folks.
In McDonagh’s mitts, the mode finds a violent, seriocomic fold, thinking nothing of injecting several murders and inevitably rendering Marty and the audience the always startled, breathless observers. Then he brazenly counterpoises it with a nonchalance that borders on, well, the psychopathic. Meanwhile, the suspense builds and the tension rises.
Fleeing from the crazy killer hell-bent on retrieving the pup Billy refuses to relinquish, the troika takes it on the lam and extemporaneously pitches tents in the desert where they form their own writer’s retreat, a little Bread Loaf, if you will, only with guns. Hans and Billy feature themselves Marty’s literary collaborators, anxious to help with the script.
The action is inconsistent at times, complicated by the multiple layers of nuttiness being perpetrated. Yet the crew of eccentrics, especially the award-worthy Sam Rockwell as loose cannon Billy, always fetches us back to the zaniness. Colin Farrell is solid as the boozing, stereotypical wordsmith who becomes inextricably involved in the cataclysms.
Which brings us to Christopher Walken who, like John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper and John Lithgow, doubtless emigrated from a planet where sinister character actors are indigenous. Let loose here to do his staccato delivery without compunction, his eyes gazing at some unseen aura, he is a typecast delight. To tell any more would be a no-no.
Suffice it to note this is strange brew, the sort of off-the-beaten-track trip into film parts uncertain that recalls the confused little old guy exiting from one of Sandy Bates’s movies in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980). A look of disbelief on his face, he asks, “From this he makes a living?” and then offers, “Me? I like a comedy… a drama.”
Call it a foray into a world we hope never to experience in real life. You exit the Bijou thanking your lucky stars to be a taxpaying bourgeois, fond of hearth and home and apple pie. Still, in many of us, whether we had a turtle soup interlude or not, there is a vicarious thrill waiting to be enjoyed, a sort of fine madness personified by “Seven Psychopaths.”
“Seven Psychopaths,” rated R, is a CBS Films release directed by Martin McDonagh and stars Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken. Running time: 110 minutes