You would think that writer’s block would not be fertile ground for a compelling story in the movies, but that keeps getting proven wrong. The writing process can be a bleak, hellish thing to document (depending on which writer you ask, probably) and someone with a creative perspective when it comes to genres and basic structure can come up with something interesting about the inability to write anything interesting at all.
Such is the conundrum that Marty, an Irish screenwriter played by Colin Farrell, faces in “Seven Psychopaths,” the second feature film (the first being “In Bruges”, also starring Farrell) from acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. The film’s title is also the only thing Marty has come up with on his own screenplay. The haze of alcohol is doing little to inspire him to come up with the seven lunatics he wants to fill his story with, even though he is surrounded by plenty of crazy, embodied by his actor roommate Billy (a delightfully batshit Sam Rockwell), who along with the religious, enigmatic Hans (a return to form for Christopher Walken), is running a scam where they steal dogs from the park, and then return them to collect the reward money. But one day they steal a shih tzu belonging to the crazed mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson, always a welcome lunatic), who will move heaven and earth to get his beloved dog back.
That’s an awful lot of setup, but “Seven Psychopaths” primary interest isn’t plot. McDonagh instead delivers a wild journey into the storytelling process that plays like the unholy mashup of Quentin Tarantino’s “True Romance” with some dashes of Charlie Kaufmann’s “Adaptation” and the Coens’ “Barton Fink.” The results, when this movie’s crazed spirit is working, are wildly entertaining and even approach levels of genius, even if self-indulgence occasionally dulls the proceedings a bit.
What makes this movie stand out is that it isn’t interested in how stories play out, the real intrigue comes from how they are created, more specifically how writers use stories and ideas from their surroundings, in this cased the dried-out wasteland of Los Angeles, and people they know more often than truly organic ideas. The first psychopath is introduced in the opening scene, when a masked killer makes quick work of two hitmen (played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt, both from TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”). The rest of this legion of crazy is introduced in both the reality of the film and anecdotes from Marty and Billy, the two forms bleeding into each other to add to McDonagh’s meditations on the origins of inspiration (the best one features Harry Dean Stanton as a vengeful Amish priest) This may sound like inside baseball for those who aren’t hardcore movie junkies or Hollywood screenwriters and it does occasionally dip into that water, but McDonagh’s own storytelling brio makes it all sail. His skills as a playwright bleed through all the narrative gymnastics, with the film’s highlights being the colorful, even frighteningly tense conversations.
All of the actors, from the drunken frazzled-ness that Farrell gives Marty, the strange dignity Walken gives Hans and the surprisingly restrained menace that masks some tenderness that is in Harrelson’s portrayal of Charlie, are more than willing to tear into McDonagh’s dialogue. But the best in show are definitely Tom Waits as Zachariah, a man who responds to an ad Billy places looking for psychopaths to inspire Marty’s story. With a fondness for white rabbits, Waits regails a hilarious, deeply strange story of how he and his girlfriend went on a rampage murdering serial killers, with tragic consequences (also providing one of the best end-credits bonus scenes in recent memory). But he’s got nothing on Rockwell as Billy. In a spectacularly batshit performance, Rockwell goes full Gonzo as an actor who is so full-on Method that it’s like a corrosive addiction for him. It feels like he’s constantly performing; he repeats things like he’s trying to figure out how he wants to say each line. Rockwell is one of the most versatile (and best) actors in America, and this easily some of his best work.
The dog-napping plot is one giant McGuffin, and McDonagh’s real goal is to examine writer’s block and how screenwriters utilize ideas. Writing is a collaborative effort, something Marty (it’s not a coincidence that the director and protagonist share the same name and vocation) stubbornly ignores. Billy constantly gives him ideas and tells him stories about psychopaths, which populate Marty’s life more than he realizes, and Marty is eager for any inspiration. A lot of this stuff was done in a more cerebral fashion in the Spike Jonze-directed “Adaptation,” but for someone like me who has tried screenwriting and is interested in how writing goes from the brain to the page, this stuff is always fascinating. The film skates over its shortcomings; the poor treatment of female characters (Abby Cornish and Olga Kurylenko have about 5 lines between them) and the conventional shootout at the end are both commented on as the weaknesses and expectations that comes with writing movies. The insanity the surrounds these characters and this movie are in the gray area that comes between inspiration and theft, between art and commerce. In “Seven Psychopaths,” writer’s block is always a bitch, even if you aren’t involved in dognapping schemes.