‘Seven Psychopaths’: Victim of The Postmodernist’s Dilemma

I like Martin McDonagh’s work. Well, let me rephrase that: I loved In Bruges, heard his plays are pretty great (I haven’t set foot in a theater in years, all due apologies to my editor), and found his brother John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard to be an excellent character study. But close enough! For me, there’s just a positive vibe about any Irish black comedy. Because what’s not to like? And while his newest film, Seven Psychopaths, is for the most part diabolically funny, there’s a definite fly in the ointment.

Call this annoyance the Postmodernist’s Dilemma: how to bend and refract your story so it unfolds in a cool, disjointed way. Right out of the gate, he’s onto the Tarantino mode of trivial digression—the opening one-off scene is a casual conversation about shooting people in the eye between two contract killers (perfect cameos from Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt). This charmed little playlet has the desired effect of wrong-footing the audience and whetting our bloodlust for the complicated carnage that unfolds.

However, as soon as we meet Colin Farrell, here playing an alcoholic Irish screenwriter and obvious proxy for McDonagh himself, we’ve hit a snag. Just how important is it to see a character writing the movie we’re seeing at the moment? (I know, I know, Adaptation, but that was sort of the whole point of that film; here’s its just winky window dressing.) Especially for a film that makes so many wise choices—letting Sam Rockwell off the leash, not wasting a single moment of Christopher Walken’s screen time—it’s a very worn trope to fall back on. Ultimately, McDonagh is confronting/resisting his artistic attraction to grotesquerie and violence, and there’s a nice meditation on how impossible it is to write a movie about peace, but I have to think one could get there without Farrell furrowing his caterpillar’d brow for 109 minutes.

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