Both literally and metaphorically, “Seven Psychopaths” is a shaggy dog story.
Not only is an actual shaggy dog, a tiny Shih Tzu, the cynosure of all eyes here, but the film’s rambling narrative meanders into all kinds of haphazard story lines that are simultaneously audacious, anarchic and random. If the name of writer-director Martin McDonagh is familiar, you sort of know what to expect.
McDonagh, a celebrated Irish playwright (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”) who was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay for 2008’s “In Bruges” (and won one for a short film), has set his latest film in Los Angeles, and its elements are every bit as blackhearted and wacky as the Bruges events were.
But unlike “In Bruges,” the outlandish parts of “Seven Psychopaths,” though often bleakly entertaining in their own right, remain a collection of weird riffs that not even engaging acting by Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits can bring together.
Also, given that this is McDonagh working somewhat in the vein of Quentin Tarantino, “Seven Psychopaths” traffics in a good deal of bloody violence, not to mention his usual gleefully profane and politically incorrect dialogue.
You could argue — and people will — that the scenes of a head being graphically blown completely off and multiple individuals getting burned to death are all meant in jolly good fun, but they do tend to wear a body down nevertheless.
There is, in fact, so much violence in this film that it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of which characters are psychopaths and which are not, even though the miscreants are identified by an on-screen number when they first appear. This is not a problem that people putting Jane Austen on screen have ever had to face.
Whatever else you say about McDonagh, you know immediately it is one of his films you’re in. The first line of dialogue heard, right after Hank Williams sings his chilling “Angel of Death” over the opening credits, is one man asking another, “Was it Dillinger who got shot in the eyeball?”
It’s not long before the film’s first genuine psychopath appears, though his identity is unknown due to his proclivity for wearing a red ski mask when he blows people away. The killer also leaves the jack of diamonds next to his victims as a calling card of sorts.
Met next is Marty, played by McDonagh’s “In Bruges” star Colin Farrell. An Irish screenwriter (one of the film’s several self-referential touches) who likes to drink more than he likes to write, Marty is not a psychopath but someone who likes to write about them.
In fact, he’s come up with the “Seven Psychopaths” title for his next work, but his drinking has gotten in the way of his writing anything, which causes his girlfriend (an underutilized Abbie Cornish) no little despair.
Eager to help Marty with the script is his best friend, Billy (Rockwell), an out-of-work actor who has in the interim partnered with Hans (Christopher Walken) in what he calls the dog-borrowing business but is actually the dog-kidnapping-for-ransom business.
While Hans is preoccupied with his wife’s possible breast cancer, Billy kidnaps a dog that should never have been taken. That would be Bonny, an adorable Shih Tzu that belongs to Charlie Costello (Harrelson), an unmistakable psychopath who loves his dog beyond reason and won’t hesitate to kill anyone involved in his disappearance.
Deranged as this plot clearly is, it is also noticeably lacking in psychopaths, and the need to work in more leads the film down some odd trails. We see a story about a vengeance-seeking Quaker (the venerable Harry Dean Stanton) that Marty has heard somewhere, as well as an elaborate tale spun by a random psychopath named Zachariah (Waits) attracted by an ad in the LA Weekly (don’t ask).
In between the mayhem, the characters get to make the kinds of bravura McDonagh speeches that actors love, like one that Billy gives passionately refuting the logic of Gandhi’s notion that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
If this sounds confusing, it’s not the half of things. Like screenwriting Marty, who wants to pen a violent psychopath tale that is also life-affirming, this film wants to deliver genre satisfactions while simultaneously subverting them. It’s a difficult maneuver, and “Seven Psychopaths” doesn’t quite pull it off.