Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

One director, seven psychopaths

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A lot of good movies have been betrayed by awful marketing campaigns, but I don’t think a trailer has ever misrepresented its underlying movie as badly as the one for In Bruges. When I first saw the painfully unfunny preview in the theater, my friend leaned over and whispered: “Poor Ralph Fiennes. What happened to him?” Like nearly everyone else in the world, I had the same reaction, and didn’t rethink it until much later, when I caught the movie on video, spurred in no small part by what seemed at the time like a surprising Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. And what I discovered, like so many others, is that this is one of the best movies of the decade, and certainly the most quotable: it’s clever, funny, sad, and unexpectedly involving in ways that can’t be described without seeing it. (A glance at its quotes page gives you some sense of the riches in store, but it’s nothing compared to watching the movie itself.) In Bruges casts a peculiar spell that depends entirely on the witty, inventive decisions made moment to moment by its writer and director, Martin McDonagh, and it’s distinguished less by its plot or content than by how lovingly crafted it all is. And this isn’t something that can be adequately conveyed in a trailer.

This seems to be a problem that McDonagh will face for the rest of his career, if the trailer and ads for Seven Psychopaths are any indication. The previews and poster make it look like an awful crime caper, with a cast of actors—Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken—who can be excellent in the right roles, but whose presence is certainly no indication of a movie’s quality. In reality, this is a consistently hilarious if somewhat facile deconstruction of its own genre, sort of like a Charlie Kaufman movie with extreme ultraviolence. It nominally centers on Farrell’s character, an Irish screenwriter (named Martin, of course) working on a screenplay called Seven Psychopaths that he insists will contain no violence or shootouts, only to find himself in the center of a ludicrously bloodsoaked crime melodrama, both in real life and in his own imagination. The result is a lot of fun, largely due to the cast that McDonagh has thrown together here, as if by fancy: Farrell, in particular, gives a wonderfully put-upon, hangdog performance that reminds us that this is a really fine actor who has managed to be horribly misused by Hollywood. Rockwell and Walken are great as well, and Woody Harrelson, as a murderously violent crime boss who just wants his kidnapped dog back, makes a convincing case for David Thomson’s argument that he’s nothing less than the new Dennis Hopper.

All the same, it isn’t nearly as good as In Bruges, and I don’t necessarily feel the need to see it again—although I expect I’ll regularly revisit its quotes page once it’s been more fully furnished. It’s clever, but in a way that often reminds us of the perils of cleverness, and lacks the purity and ease of McDonagh’s first movie. McDonagh can be an inventive plotter, and the way the movie shifts between the imaginary and real is often amusing, but it’s the kind of narrative trickery that other writers have done before, and better. McDonagh is matchless, however, when it comes to writing dialogue that seems both lunatic and inevitable, and he’s at his best when he just lets his characters talk. There’s nothing quite as memorable as the best of In Bruges (“One gay beer for my gay friend, one normal beer for me because I am normal”) but there are some great lines, as when Farrell says indignantly: “You’ve called a psycho killer to come and psycho kill us!” And McDonagh indulges happily in some good, cheap gags, as when Rockwell, reading aloud his own screenplay for the big shootout at the end of the movie, makes an endless machine gun noise with his mouth, turns the page, and continues the noise from the page before.

More of this sort of thing, and fewer metafictional games, might have resulted in a movie that was really special, instead of an entertaining trifle. I’m being hard on McDonagh, but I think he deserves it. This is a man of captivating talents and originality who ought to be making a movie every couple of years, and I fully intend to see all of them. Like David Mamet, however, whom I admire enormously, McDonagh often falls into the playwright’s trap of trusting structure and material more than a movie’s intangibles. In an interview with The A.V. Club, when asked if there were any happy accidents that occurred during filming, McDonagh says: “Not really.” But he’d benefit from letting his movie breathe a little more. My favorite moment in the entire film has nothing to do with the script: it’s Christopher Walken’s pronunciation of the word “hallucinogens,” which, by giving the word a previously undiscovered syllable or two, both makes it embody its own meaning and serves a perfect expression of pure Walkenness. It doesn’t arise from McDonagh’s games, but from the weirdness that emerges where the machinery ends. McDonagh clearly understands this. And Seven Psychopaths, for all its pleasures, is the kind of movie that makes you want to see what the director does next, once he’s gotten a few things out of his system.

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2012 at 10:21 am

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