I’ll be up front: In Bruges, written and directed by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, is, to my way of thinking, perfect. I’ve watched it umpteen times. My kids quote from it (admittedly awkward when they’re doing it in the first grade). It is violent yet ruminative, an elegiac nod to moralism, ethics, dwarves, guilt, salvation and redemption.
It is, in a word, profound.
McDonagh’s follow-up, Seven Psychopaths, strives mightily to attain that status, as it mines pretty much the same themes. Well, except for the dwarves. Colin Farrell is Marty, an alcoholic screenwriter suffering writer’s block—or maybe it’s the other way around. He’s got the title for his next work, Seven Psychopaths, but not the substance, so his pal Billy (Sam Rockwell), an unemployed actor moonlighting as a dognapper with Hans (Christopher Walken), places an add in LA Weekly looking for, well, seven psychopaths. Around this time, the frenzied Billy kidnaps the wrong pooch—Bonnie, the beloved Shih Tzu of gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson)—resulting in murder, lots of splattered blood, and a midnight getaway to the Joshua Tree National Desert. Here, Billy and Hans (with Bonnie in tow) attempt to help Marty muddle through his screenplay and, presumably, await the fury of Charlie’s vengeance. As Billy notes, not without logic, “This would be a great place for the final shootout.”
Said shootout eventually comes, but not before the ramshackle plot goes off the rails, buckling under from the sheer weight of its zany characters (Tom Waits as one half of a serial-killing couple, Harry Dean Stanton as the Quaker Psycho) and their distinct soliloquies and the filmmaker’s obvious affection for the tics and nuances that Walken brings to his role. Along the way, there are numerous shootings and explosions punctuating the bristling dialogue that one expects from McDonagh and that, more often than not, delivers reflective insights about society, heaven and hell, pretty much everything. Farrell is subdued, the straight man of the fugitive threesome, and, as stated, Walken combines balletic physical grace with strangely beautiful line readings. Rockwell chews the scenery in a way that meshes well with the utter chaos of the proceedings, until it takes on a life of its own.
You leave Seven Psychopaths having laughed a good bit, and having been surprised at times, but with the weary sensation that you’ve seen much of this before, perhaps in a Tarantino movie—and that it’s still nowhere near as good as In Bruges.