Seven Psychopaths: Casting Isn’t Everything

27 Nov

By Clara Hittel

Before I found out that there was a new film written and directed by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, I’d heard whispers from excited film students about an upcoming release with the quirky cast of a hip director’s wildest fantasies: Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson and Tom Waits. Throw in cameos by Harry Dean Stanton, Kevin Corrigan and Michael Pitt, and I’m sold eight times over. Seven Psychopaths could have been nothing more than these guys sitting in a room staring at each other for two hours and I figured I was bound to like the film. As it turns out, casting isn’t everything.

Martin McDonagh, who could easily have pursued a successful career as a Sting impersonator if he had been so inclined, has transitioned reasonably well from writing and directing for the stage to the screen. However, his film work still has an undeniably play-like quality. It is hard to say whether the delivery of the lines feels this way because of the script itself or because of McDonagh’s brand of directing. Maybe it’s both. After all, he’s been writing plays for over two decades and Seven Psychopaths is only his third film. Before Psychopaths was the 2008 feature film In Bruges, which also stars Colin Farrell and is a large contributor to the epidemic of Irish-accent envy among young male actors in America. Before that was the gut-wrenching short film Six-Shooter, which prods you into laughing against your better judgment as some very unfunny events take place.

In Seven Psychopaths, Colin Farrell plays McDonagh’s semi-autobiographical protagonist Marty, a screenwriter who experiences writer’s block as he struggles to come up with a story to fit the film’s title. Marty is similar to Farrell’s role in In Bruges – an outwardly charming, substance-abusing lost soul who finds himself in circumstances beyond his control, and who whines enough to negate his good looks. It’s a part he plays well.

In this meta film, the “true” psychopath stories Marty requires for his script fall into his lap due to the efforts of his friend Billy, played by an energetic Rockwell. Marty ambitiously claims “I don’t want it to be another film about guys with guns in their hands,” and the from that point on a struggle ensues between the pacifistic film Marty wants to write and the shoot-em-up that Billy wants the film to be. There is a point that we realize the film we are in the midst of viewing is supposed to be the result of Marty’s finished script. This makes it even more fun when Billy, desperate to have input, takes matters into his own hands and makes the movie end his way, so that the movie ends his way. It makes sense, I promise. Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors, period. He is versatile, comically gifted, and adorably deranged. His unique identity puts him in league with icons like Christopher Walken and Tom Waits, which is why it is exciting to see them working together. Also, his wardrobe is just plain fun to look at. My only complaint is that his performance is almost too big in Psychopaths.

Billy is eager to be Marty’s closest friend and ally and pushes him to write. The rest of the time, he helps Walken’s character Hans to kidnap dogs and return them for reward money. Walken, sporting a silk cravat throughout the film, is an exaggerated impersonation of himself with impeccable comedic timing. The only instances that anyone in the audience laughed out loud are attributable to Walken and his noncommittal little grunts and grins.

Woody Harrelson plays a gangster named Charlie, whose beloved Shih Tzu Bonny is stolen by Billy. He cares more about his dog than any human life, and the bodies pile up as he tracks Bonny down. Ridiculous and terrifying, Harrelson’s irrational tough guy with a soft spot for his dog is a flawless performance. When he finally comes face-to-face with the dognappers, we can’t help but sympathize with the “little cuddle” he so desperately wants to give Bonny.

And let’s not forget an aged, bunny-toting Tom Waits, who responds to an advertisement seeking psychopaths with interesting stories to use in Marty’s film. Known primarily as a masterful singer-songwriter, Waits is a musician’s musician. I can practically smell the alcohol and cigarettes when his gravelly voice and jazzy piano stylings spin on my turntable. I’m a big fan of his music, but I’ve only recently come to realize the legitimacy of his acting career. Directors admire his unique persona and want to cast him in their films, and his resume is extensive. Waits is such an icon now that he is often cast as characters that represent either “god” or “the devil” due to his voice, his enigmatic personality, and his simultaneously innocent and mischievous face. In Seven Psychopaths, however, he is just a lonely, lovesick psychopath with a bunny.

I have not mentioned any female performances because no women in this film had parts worthy of note. Many complaints have been made about McDonagh’s unimportant and horribly treated female characters. The majority of the women in Seven Psychopaths are African-American, too, giving McDonagh the opportunity for his characters to be disgusting and ignorant about both attributes. Yes, the women are called horrible things and their parts are small. McDonagh is commenting on how women are often portrayed in gun-heavy, male action films written by jerks like Marty. In case we didn’t catch that, he even mentions it in my favorite meta moment of the film. Hans reads Marty’s screenplay and tells him that “the women characters are awful.” Marty, who seems bewildered by this observation, replies, “It’s a hard world for women.” Hans responds, “It’s a hard world for women, but most of the ones I know can string a sentence together.”

The cheesy yet charming humor doesn’t always hit the mark in Seven Psychopaths, and the Tarantino-like graphic violence seems forced and unnecessary. Besides Hans, the characters as written are not cool or smooth but rather kind of misguided, in spite of the performances. I liked the cast and the concept more than I actively enjoyed the film itself, but Psychopaths does produce some moments worth seeing and the soundtrack is great. Sadly, this film is proof that the perfect cast doesn’t make a perfect film.