Seven Psychopathsby Kavish Chetty / 22.03.2013
Chances are, especially in this shallow, glittery trench called Cape Town, two or three of your best friends are psychopaths: slickly charismatic, embourgeoisied, pathological liars with no depth of empathy and an endless fascination with sublimating their violence into smooth representations of self. The Psychopaths in Martin McDonagh’s new film, Seven Psychopaths, however, are more bonded to the bloodthirsty mode of psychopathy – a synchronised spectacle of exploding heads and gut-shots, entrails splattered on hospital walls and blood bursting in crimson jets from every arterial vein available to the gruesome job. Isn’t this the modus operandi of every male protagonist in Hollywood action movies, anyway? What separates out the frayed borders of the psychopath in this case? Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme – in all their most shirtless and oiled incarnations – serve justice by the edge of a blade, or the trigger of a gun. So, in essence, the “seven psychopaths” here are really just seven Hollywood dudes who dispatch with murderous glee the way Hollywood dudes do. Psychopathy is the essence of pulp cinema’s masculine soul.
That embedded critique of what men mean in action cinema must surely be part of the film’s critical apparatus, because Seven Psychopaths (with its bold allusion to Kurosawa) is a terribly self-reflexive and subversive jolt through the principles of the crime genre. It exhumes all the tropes from their hastily-architected graves, and replays them with such hyperbole so as to lurch between tragedy and farce, between a parody of cinematic codes and conventions and an unavoidable implication within them. It is, then, the terminus of all cinema in our age: one of a postmodern consciousness – that this has happened before, is replaying itself, is curtaining itself off, immunizing itself, from the old critiques through a cordon sanitaire (“this is parody and pastiche”) of painful awareness. As such, it is clairvoyant cinema, which knows where it’s going and how it’s getting there: and this consists in a slow unraveling of itself, an auto-deconstruction, a meta-fictional work that is neither here nor there, but rather hanging in the abyssal yawn ‘twixt the two. The spirit is that of the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, but more strong are the evocations of Quentin Tarantino with its stylised violence – and the whole thing is shot in filter, as though witnessed through the polarised lenses of a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers, or Instagram, for which perspective is more appropriate to witness the commoditised and aestheticised carnage on display? Marry Charlie Kaufmann to the above two inspirations in an easily-inked bigamy of postmodern film, and you have Seven Psychopaths’ constitutive elements.
But this perhaps makes it sound cruder in its execution than it actually is. While clearly trying to be more charismatic than its wearied reserves will allow, Seven Psychopaths is funny and absurd, dialogued with comical precision (its characters sometimes in possession of a malformed existentialism) and it eviscerates the dogma of its predecessors stylishly, obviously and sometimes brilliantly. The general narrative thrust (and there are several, intersecting stories at play here) concerns a burned-out Oirish scriptwriter named Marty (Colin Farrell). I would add that he is a raging alcoholic, but as the film is at pains to point out, the juxtaposition with his Irish-ness makes this an immediate tautology. Marty is working on a script called “Seven Psychopaths”, but all he’s managed to do so far is ink the title. His friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) provides some inspiration in this regard, by putting in an advert in the classifieds, a nation-wide announcement to free-roaming lunatics to pitch up at Marty’s door and tell him their story. But Bickle’s story itself is kooky enough for adaptation: he’s a professional dog-napper who pilfers wealthy-looking owners’ canines and then gives them to his buddy Hans (Christopher Walken), who waits for reward posters to get plastered up before he returns them for bounty which in turn funds his wife’s breast-cancer surgery. The plot gets even more gonzo when Billy accidentally steals a notorious crime-boss’s lavished Shih-Tzu, and the boss (Woody Harrelson) engages a limitless and corpse-strewn quest to find his adored pet.
The script of Marty’s film is then the unfinished text of what this film slowly becomes: a kind of crime drama which is (deliberately) trying vrek hard to avoid its telos [end in Greek, for the dictionary-less], to leave unfulfilled the inevitable ambition of its type. It produces strange meta-fictional tensions between its own commentary, its own attempts to career the train off course, and what actually ends up happening, the ingloriousness of which I leave to the viewer. But what does all its philosophising actually accomplish? Take the female characters in the movie: they are, on the whole, designed as flesh-sheathes vibrating with ready-to-burst plasma, slim and tartly in their ocean-blue lingerie, vacuous with their emaciated dialogue, barely speaking and barely worth having listened to – like much cinema, they are glistening, disembodied pussies (another more racialised dimension, prey to the same historical critiques, can be made of one of the African-American female “psychopaths”). Hans, while reading Marty’s script, once remarks on this fact – that Marty’s female characters are awfully realised – but does this obvious inside-joke actually do anything to ameliorate their representation? Or does it function as another non-committal postmodern gag, an admission of guilt: we know the rules, and as we shatter them they re-materialise with a dull and frightening inevitability?
Either way, Seven Psychopaths does – in the hallmarked Tarantino tradition – what any super-reflexive cinema is meant to do: suitably interrogating the codes it works within, while at the same time offering up all the visual and aesthetic pleasures they always do – the violence is beautiful in its own morbid way, and the characters are acted out with pleasing idiosyncrasy. Walken gets the medal with his usual charisma: a sociopathic smile, avuncular and yet murderous, his jaw which slackens and tenses adoringly, and shuffled walk which is always haunted at the edges by his performance in Weapon of Choice. A cameo appearance by Tom Waits as a religious murderer with a pet rabbit is excellent. Rockwell tries with desperate enthusiasm to come across as mad, but – and glance away if you’re weary of spoilers – the final act of this film, with Billy Bickle’s (an obvious reference to Travis Bickle, the tortured vigilante of Taxi Driver) self-sacrificial gesture destroys the unconvincing illusion that he was ever a true psychopath in the first place; more accurately, just another “dude” like John McClane and John Rambo, who kills some people to help other people. So arcing gleefully between self-critique and self-indulgence, Seven Psychopaths is finally an entertaining bit of self-aware cinema, which continues to push self-reflexivity into its self-built cul-de-sac.