TORONTO — Martin McDonagh is no stranger to movie violence. The British playwright-filmmaker’s debut feature, 2008’s hit-man tale “In Bruges,” had no shortage of blood, and McDonagh’s new movie, Friday’s R-rated crime drama “Seven Psychopaths,” is hardly a musical comedy.
The writer-director won’t have to wait for critics and audiences to comment on the surging body count — “Seven Psychopaths” is as much a commentary on screen violence as a story overflowing with it. At various points throughout the film, McDonagh points out the real-life consequences of aggression and stages some scenes with so much over-the-top mayhem that it’s clear he’s poking fun at how movies typically, and casually, glorify bloodshed.
At this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “Seven Psychopaths” won the Midnight Madness audience prize, McDonagh said that he considers the film’s soul to be a war between the lyrical humanism of Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life,” “Days of Heaven”) and the rough-and-tumble brutality of Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch,” “Straw Dogs”).
“I’m not sure it really turned out that way,” McDonagh admitted. “But in my head, even in script terms, I did think about things in that way. It was an attempt at something more spiritual or moral, but at the same time I kind of had an urge to have a cool car chase and gun battle too.”
This mix of literate, often witty dialogue and heavy doses of violence is a trademark of McDonagh’s work in the theater. McDonagh’s recent play “A Behanding in Spokane,” about a man with one hand looking for his missing appendage, debuted on Broadway with Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell in 2010. A multiple Tony nominee, McDonagh had four previous Broadway plays produced: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Lonesome West,” “The Pillowman” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”
Co-financed by CBS with FilmFour and BFI for $13.5 million, “Seven Psychopaths” follows a struggling, alcoholic Irish writer in Los Angeles named Martin (Colin Farrell) as he attempts to finish a screenplay titled “Seven Psychopaths.” His friend Billy (Rockwell) and a man named Hans (Walken) run a low-stakes dog-snatching scam, returning pilfered pooches for rewards. When Billy and Hans accidentally snatch the Shih Tzu of a hardened gangster (Woody Harrelson), things get ugly for all of them.
One of the production’s other distinct aspects is that the film seems to be writing itself as it unspools. Farrell said that despite playing a character named Martin who is writing a script called “Seven Psychopaths” in a movie called “Seven Psychopaths” for a writer-director named Martin, he never felt he was playing an autobiographical character, but rather inhabiting a space between fact and fiction.
“That blur that was designed into it was something I was very aware of from the start,” Farrell said. “That there was a sense of curiosity shared between the character that he wrote and himself as a writer. A curiosity born of the idea of the nature of violence in film and what the writer’s fundamental and deepest purpose is as a creator of art.
“The biggest coup about the whole thing,” added Farrell, “is that as violent as it is, and irreverent and has as much profanity and chaos and anarchic intentions, it’s a really sweet film about friendship and love and putting old ghosts to bed.”
Another of the film’s biggest surprises is McDonagh’s use of Walken — a notorious movie tough guy from roles in films such as “King of New York” and “True Romance” — as an unexpected avatar of pacifism.
“The audience has seen you in other movies, what they might have read about you or learned about you, so that all becomes part of what’s up there,” Walken said. “And sometimes you can take that and flip it, defy expectations.”
For all the acclamation for his stage and screen work, McDonagh has been dogged by comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, and even McDonagh’s praiseworthy reviews have mentioned the “Pulp Fiction” filmmaker.
“The Tarantino comparison, I don’t really see it as much,” McDonagh said. “Other people have been doing cool dialogue for years. Preston Sturges, I’d say is more on an influence in that regard. I mean ‘Pulp Fiction’ is a fantastic film but I wouldn’t have said I was ever really influenced by it.”
Farrell and McDonagh worked together in “In Bruges,” which not only reinvigorated Farrell’s acting career but also brought McDonagh an original screenplay Oscar nomination. But for all of that film’s critical acclaim, “In Bruges” grossed a paltry $7.8 million in domestic release for Focus Features — which presents both an opportunity and obstacle for CBS Films.
The studio will open “Seven Psychopaths” in a scaled-down national release of about 1,475 locations, but that’s still about seven times wider than “In Bruges” ever played. Like McDonagh’s earlier critical favorite, the early reviews of “Seven Psychopaths” have been glowing.
That positive praise will be needed to turn “Seven Psychopaths” into a hit. The film is opening against Ben Affleck’s rescue drama “Argo,” the Kevin James comedy “Here Comes the Boom” and the Ethan Hawke horror thriller “Sinister.” What’s more, “Seven Psychopaths” must fend off the second weekend of “Taken 2,” which debuted last weekend to a better-than-expected opening of $49.5 million.
McDonagh hopes audiences will embrace his meta-meditation on violence and storytelling. The biggest leap, he says, will be with a scene in which Rockwell’s character fantasizes what the film’s finale could be like.
“You don’t want to have your tongue so firmly in your cheek,” he said, “that it doesn’t work.”