Farrell plays a screenwriter who’s got the title for his new screenplay (Seven Psychopaths) but nothing else to go on. I took this self-reflexive gesture as a bad omen, and I was right. The movie is about a guy trying to write a movie about psychopaths, only to find himself in the midst of sick, strange people…although he claims, repeatedly, that what he really wants is to write about peace and love. Uh-huh.
McDonagh claims the same thing. That’s a tough sell when you’ve made a film packed with extreme violence and offensive language. Just one example: Gabourey Sidibe makes a cameo appearance in one scene where she’s threatened with a gun and verbally abused by her psycho boss, played by Harrelson. He repeatedly refers to her “fat ass,” which is supposed to be acceptable because the words come from a disreputable character. But when they’re repeated, needlessly, several times there’s no way to mask their unpleasantness. (Late in the film, someone who reads Farrell’s screenplay criticizes his poorly-conceived female characters—another on-camera excuse for Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurlyenko’s underwritten roles.)
McDonagh wants to have his cake and smash it, too. A filmmaker doesn’t get a free pass to be disgusting just because he’s self-aware.
Christopher Walken manages to transcend the mean-spiritedness of the proceedings with a bright, typically idiosyncratic but wholly endearing performance. His character has a sweetness that separates him from his cohorts, although his backstory is just as seamy.
The other remarkable performance comes from Sam Rockwell as a bona fide psychopath. He is so kinetically alive in every scene that you can almost forgive his frightening craziness, which he justifies in a torrent of motor-mouthed dialogue.
Seven Psychopaths turns out to be something of a shaggy-dog joke, a story-within-a-story about a screenwriter who wants to forsake gunplay and other forms of violence for something more uplifting—yet offers us just that, in spades. I laughed, at first, at the absurdity of McDonagh’s set-ups, but after a while I stopped laughing and started squirming instead. This is a strange, sick, unsatisfying movie.