On the surface, Seven Psychopaths seems to be yet another of the post-modern crime movies whose graphic violence, smart writing and elaborate plotting mesh in an appropriation of the ways Quentin Tarantino renewed genre codes after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. On closer appreciation, though, the writer/director beyond this US-set British production is a talented and recognised wordsmith in his own, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. And what he does here is take those post-Tarantino genre renewal as far as they'll go before breaking up: Seven Psychopaths is openly a crime movie about crime movies, a meta-referential Möbius strip where the levels of fiction within the story are constantly shifting and blurring beyond any recognition save the need to go on telling stories.

     Since so much of cinema is storytelling (whether purely sensorial or narrative), it's no wonder that Mr. McDonagh is meditating on the origins and transformations of the key element that is the story. At heart, this is the tale of a screenwriter tasked with writing a crime movie called Seven Psychopaths; what we witness is how Irish transplant Martin (Colin Farrell) goes about creating it while being dragged by his friend and small-time crook Billy (a frenzied Sam Rockwell) into a surreal crime tale involving a Los Angeles' crime boss' (Woody Harrelson) kidnapped pet dog.  The identity of the title's seven psychopaths is revealed at irregular intervals and, at first, seem to have little to do with the central story, until the film itself seems to start collapsing under the conflicting ambitions of the ever more befuddled Martin (who is adamant he doesn't want to write just another crime thriller) and the ever more out-there Billy (who wants the script to become the action movie to end all action movies).

     At that point, you begin to ask yourself whether Mr. McDonagh is talking about the film's own creation, presenting a metaphor of creative work as a whole or just trying to see how far he can take the idea of a self-reflexive crime thriller. The playwright certainly has a way with words (running the risk of typecasting, it must be the Irish gift of the gab) and with colourful characters: pretty much every single one in this film, down to the bit parts, could very well be its star, none more so than Tom Waits' rabbit-petting moral serial killer. But it's fair to say that, as a director, he is more concerned with the writing than with the merely adequate visuals (this is after all a script-driven project, very much a writer's movie). And he can't help but let the film drag somewhat in its second act, where the thoughtful critique of action movies that is at the heart of the entire project risks swallowing everything else whole and turn Seven Psychopaths into an intriguing essay on narrative deconstruction and the origins of creativity, replete of sly references to previous films, instead of the cracking genre subversion it enjoys being for much of its length.

     The sheer gall of wanting to have his layer cake and eating it too, though, helps Mr. McDonagh steer the film in the right direction, much helped by the insanely talented cast whom he pretty much sets loose with remarkable results. Despite the excellent Mr. Farrell's previous form with the director (he was the lead in Mr. McDonagh's debut film, In Bruges, as well), the manic Mr. Rockwell, a superb Christopher Walken as a devoutly Catholic small-timer and the ever-great Mr. Harrelson pretty much steal the show from under him and make Seven Psychopaths a cracker of a movie that never stoops down to its audience nor shirks from embracing the genre cliches the better to reverse and subvert them.

Cast: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Željko Ivanek
Director and writer: Martin McDonagh
Cinematography: Ben Davis  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Carter Burwell
Designer: David Wasco
Costumes: Karen Patch
Editor: Lisa Gunning
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Mr. McDonagh (Filmfour, British Film Institute and Blueprint Pictures in association with Hanway Films)
United Kingdom, 2012, 110 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), March 12th 2013)


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