Film review: 'Psychopaths' twists and turns upon itself

If it's easy to curse Quentin Tarantino for all the bad-to-awful imitations he's inspired, then it's only fair to grant him a degree of absolution for the occasional good-to-brilliant imitation. Case in point: Martin McDonagh's hilarious new "Seven Psychopaths," opening this week.

It may be unfair to reduce McDonagh to the status of imitator. Before he came to film, the Anglo-Irish McDonagh had already established himself as the most acclaimed new playwright of our young millennium. He began his cinema career with “Six Shooter,” which won the 2006 Oscar for Live-Action Short. And his first feature, “In Bruges,” was arguably the best movie of 2008. While its comically squabbling hit men certainly invoked “Pulp Fiction,” it displayed a slightly different sense of timing and an even more different visual style.

The first scene of “Seven Psychopaths” may be a bit of misdirection or conscious self-mockery. Two hit men (Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg) are making small talk while waiting around for their target. It almost feels like “In Bruges 2”; but, within three minutes, the two vanish from the movie and we meet the actual protagonist: a Hollywood screenwriter named Martin (Colin Farrell), who is way behind schedule on a script called “Seven Psychopaths.” Way, way behind, like, by roughly 119 pages and six psychopaths. (Was the first scene real or the scene he was writing?) Billy (Sam Rockwell), his slightly thick best friend, tries to be helpful by advertising for psychos in the L.A. Weekly.

Billy is also partners with Hans (Christopher Walken) in a dog-snatching grift — grab a shih tzu from a wealthy neighborhood and then innocently return it for a reward. Unfortunately, their latest acquisition is Bonny (Bonny), the very cherished companion of scary-crazy crime boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who orders all his goons to retrieve Bonny and give her kidnappers exactly the reward he thinks they deserve. Soon, Martin, Billy, Hans and Bonny are on the run. As you might expect, high jinks ensue — high jinks featuring a lot of heavy violence.

The tone and the degree of reality in “Seven Psychopaths” are very similar to “In Bruges.” Perhaps the central difference is that McDonagh cranks up the self-reflexiveness: The character list of “In Bruges” includes a movie crew, whose fantasy melts into reality briefly but crucially by the end. The new film has Farrell as an Irish screenwriter with the same name as its Irish writer/director, who appears to be working on the script of the movie we're watching ... or maybe not.

It's the same sort of structured confusion that reached its penultimate degree in “Adaptation,” Spike Jonze's film of Charlie Kaufman's multi-Mobius strip of a screenplay. (Kaufman's directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York” subsequently achieved the ultimate degree.) Both were brilliant but so mind-scrambling they could cause headaches and vertigo. If you were intrigued but irritated by Kaufman's infinite regressions, you're far likelier to enjoy “Seven Psychopaths”: Consider it to be “Adaptation” Lite.

The cast is uniformly good, but Walken leaves the strongest impression in a role that no one else could play — something that's obvious if you've seen the ads or trailers. In maybe five seconds they give us a quick taste of Walken distilled to his purest.

NOTE: "Seven Psychopaths" has a significant coda in the middle of the closing credits, so don't rush for the doors as soon as they start.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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