Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 23, 2012 11:25 am 
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An Irishman can't do Tarantino in Hollywood

I want to object. "Seven" psychopaths? In this sophomore effort as a writer and director for film the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh hasn't tried to play fair. I couldn't find seven psychopaths here. I don't think he even means psychopaths. Sociopaths, maybe. Does he even care? When Tarantino said "pulp fiction" he gave us pulp fiction and when he said "kill Bill" he killed Bill. The only psychopaths -- or sociopaths -- in this movie are Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, one a preening rooster of a violent criminal and the other a nut case disguised as a pal deceiving poor Chris Walken, who is a dog-napper. But really, a dog-napper? He steals dogs from rich people and then returns them and collects the reward. But they're onto his game and so should we be -- onto McDonagh's. He's taking us for a ride here, and it's not as much fun as it's cracked up to be. Witty, madcap, and violent this movie may be, but it's also lame, ill conceived, and for a writer of talent, lazy.

I also want to protest. Why must McDonagh move to America? He's Irish, and his original madcap plays were mostly set there. True, his best play of all is the chilling Pillowman, which is set in some undefined totalitarian country. And when he made his first film he located it in a neverland he once visited, In Bruges, and that worked pretty well. His recent US-set play A Behanding in Spokane, set in Spokane (a promise kept, at least), also with Rockwell and Walken, seemed pushed. But at least McDonagh was at home there in the confines of seedy rooms, as he was in the ironic claustrophobia of Bruges. (Pillowman positively oozes a sense of confinement.) But now he wants to take us to L.A. and stage his finale out in the desert, with large cacti. This move may help his bank account but it has not helped his work.

Numerical inter-titles are an obvious ruse for conveying a illusion of order where there is none, and Seven Psychopaths starts out in the first few minutes, with a bloody double execution, and the overhead title, Psychopath No. 1. Things get kind of foggy after two or three psychopaths. I was not able to engage with what was happening on the screen. The dialogue was funny, sometimes, but the plot was too scattered to give it real focus. The dog-napping, the wandering killers, the pals hanging out, all failed to build up momentum or to connect meaningfully and suspensefully.

The premise is that several low-lifers (Rockwell and Walken, with their pal Farrel) light a match in a woodpile when they kidnap the dog of an irascible gangster (Harrelson) who is unnaturally passionate about his pet. What keeps things going is the wacky talk, the offhand violence, and, most of all, the name cast. The revelatory element in this movie is that Colin Farrell, brandishing his Irish accent, and a stand-in for the author (he's even called Marty), is trying to write a screenplay, but has writer's block and drinks too much. Yes, there may be writer's block issues in Martin McDonagh's life, drinking ones too for that matter -- he's Irish, after all -- and he may be bludgeoning his way out of them. I recall that he blasted forth a raft of early plays in a great youthful rush of creative energy, and then fell silent for a period of some years. Now lately things are coming out under his name, but they lack the brilliance, the fertility, and the originality of the earlier work. Nor does the fact that this is self-referential to the max (when Marty's ideas begin to flow what comes out is the movie) keep this from feeling warmed over. As Peter DeBruge put it in Variety, McDonagh is "late to the Tarantino knock-off party." But as Debruge adds, the irony is that McDonagh's lack of artistic effort may make this his "most accessible project to date." This will be a sad irony if it signals the decline of a fine writer.

The material sounds promising. Seven psychopaths. That's plenty. And a cast of cool characters. Walken, Hararelson, Rockwell. Farrell, who's attractive and soulful and has a nice Irish accent. A couple of babes. The iconic Tom Waits, with a rabbit (not really needed, but this is a movie of things tossed in for flavor as in a stew). There is even Harry Dean Stanton, whose mere appearance in a black suit and hat, puffing on a cigarette, adds a big dash of classic cultish cool. But all that is not enough.

To do him credit this is still unmistakably Martin McDonagh. Only he would splash blood like this or write dialogue like this. Some of the bits -- the nasty play with racism in something Harrelson says about Walken and his wife, for instance -- smack too obviously of the Tarantino influence, however. An Irishman shouldn't try to do Taranntino, not in Hollywood. But for the most part this is McDonagh. But it's McDonagh out of his element, and uninspired. Happily, the audience seemed to like the movie, and the critics are generally favorable, and he'll get to go on working and may do better and shoot higher next time. Or become a Hollywood hack. Time will tell.

Seven Psychopaths debuted at Toronto Sept. 2012 and has opened in many countries. The US wide release was Oct. 12, 2012; UK, Dec. 7; France, Jan. 30, 2013.

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