by: Jonathan Chow
For a film with a title as straightforward and evocative as “Seven Psychopaths,” one could understandably have a certain expectation for the amount of violence depicted in this film. In fact, if all you were looking for in “Seven Psychopaths” was gratuitous violence, then you would not be disappointed: “Psychopaths” is then an appropriately brutal film.
But that’s only one half of “Seven Psychopaths;” it’s the other half—the non-sequiturs, the clever dialogue, the deranged but strangely lovable characters—that make it such an enjoyable film to behold. “Psychopaths” strikes a successful balance between violence and a charming self-awareness that borders on parody. Contrary to what you might believe based on its title and premise, “Seven Psychopaths” is a smartly written, emotionally satisfying film.
The film’s protagonist is Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter struggling to develop a script about seven psychopaths who will all fly into murderous rampages. Marty’s best friend is Billy (Sam Rockwell), a psychopathic dog thief trying to help Marty finish his film.
Billy works in collaboration with Hans (Christopher Walken), a fellow psychopath who we later learn has a tragic background. Together they operate a scam in which they steal dogs and return them to their distraught owners, who are all too eager to give the thieves a reward for “finding” their dog.
This all goes wrong when Billy steals a dog that provides the impetus for the plot: a Shih Tzu that Billy has stolen from psychopathic gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who for much of the film will hunt down Billy, Marty and Hans.
Weaved into the film are depictions of characters from Marty’s screenplay: an Amish serial killer, a Buddhist serial killer and a serial killer who kills serial killers.
All of the actors are able to convince us of their characters’ foibles and contradictions. We can believe Harrelson as Costello, someone who would have no qualms about shooting someone in the head and then later weep openly because he is worried about his kidnapped Shih Tzu.
This sort of ironic balance is typical in “Seven Psychopaths.” Rockwell as Billy is as equally deranged as Harrelson’s Costello, but what is surprising about Rockwell’s performance and his character is the level of affection we can feel for him. Billy is an unpredictable and violent killer, but he also shows uncommon devotion to Marty and Hans and a real human need for validation.
Walken as Hans deadpans his way through most of the film, providing us many a moment of unexpected humor. But Walken also imbues his character with an inherent sadness that will never border on mawkishness, and an austere wisdom we realize has been developed and acquired through time. The depth of Walken’s performance prevents Costello from being a caricature.
Farrell, despite being the protagonist, takes a back seat to the other characters, who are just too demented and too interesting to be ignored. Wisely, Farrell in this role takes a deliberate step back with an understated performance that allows us to observe the psychopaths in all their violent glory.
The sort of violence that “Seven Psychopaths” depicts and the film’s penchant for clever dialogue and idiosyncratic characters will no doubt draw it some comparisons to Tarantino’s films. The latter tend to err more on the side of homage; “Seven Psychopaths” will sometimes veer into the realm of parody. Much like Tarantino’s films, “Psychopaths” does not let violence distract from a good plot with interesting characters.