Hollywood is a violent place, or at least it is in the movies. Having lived on its doorstep for the past few years, I can attest that there is remarkably less physical violence along Hollywood, Sunset, and Santa Monica Boulevards than the movies might suggest. There are different kinds of violence though – relational, psychological, and emotional, to name a few – and in that sense you’ll find as much violence in Hollywood as you’ll find around any family dinner table anywhere in the world.
It’s those other kinds of non-physical violence that most of us experience most often, both as aggressor and victim. We’re much more apt to emotionally wound our neighbors than we are to strike them. For all the harm that physical violence enacts in the world, I suspect non-physical violence takes a higher toll on Creation. Physical violence gets more screen time, because it’s so much easier to see.
Physical forms of violence are certainly easy to see in Seven Psychopaths, the second feature-length film from famed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. His first feature, the darkly comic In Bruges, focused on two hit men (played by frequently unsubtle Colin Farrell and the always remarkable Brendan Gleeson) hiding out in a small medieval town in Belgium. McDonagh’s theologically Catholic roots are on full Gothic display throughout In Bruges including most notably his characters’ wrestling with matters of guilt, grace, suicide, and self-sacrifice.
Those same questions are at the heart of Seven Psychopaths, but on fuller display here are accompanying questions about violence, our complicity in continued violence as both story-tellers, story-takers, and actors in our own stories, and the place of movies (as the key storytelling medium of our time) in propagating certain ideas about violence. It’s the most entertaining, mature, and layered consideration of these questions that I’ve seen in a long time.
Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is about a writer named Martin (played with remarkable nuance and subtlety by Colin Farrell) working on the screenplay for a movie called “Seven Psychopaths.” He wants this movie in the end to be about love and goodness, and he is having trouble coming up with the seven psychopaths his proposed title demands. However, even before we meet his character in the movie, psychopaths begin coming from every conceivable story angle to meet his need. The movie is tremendously funny and always fun even in its darkest moments, just like In Bruges.
You’ve likely already picked up on the movie’s narrative similarity to Adaptation, but there are more references to other notable film classics about violent psychopaths than I can divulge without giving away important plot points. I will say that there are direct references to the films of Kurasawa, Tarantino, Coppola, Scorsese, Lynch, Leone, Kieslowski, Fincher, Richard Kelly, the Waschoswki siblings, Robert Rodriguez, and probably lots of others I missed. It’s fun, because the audience is constantly recognizing people and situations they know well, but it’s also smart, because McDonagh not only references but also critiques these other films, some negatively and others positively.
Those he critiques negatively (Tarantino, Rodrigues, Leone), he criticizes for their embrace of violence. Those he critiques positively (Coppola, Scorsese, Lynch, Kieslowski), he praises for their repudiation of violence. In each case though, McDonagh offers, in the end, that better way his main character is searching for: non-violent self-sacrifice as an attempt to end the cycles of violence that consume us. McDonagh answers the question asked by Travis Bickle and Colonel Kurtz in a way that admits both the difficulty of that answer and that the answer must be given not just once but continuously, because the threat of violence is always out there.
Seven Psychopaths is movie that even manages to transform its own violence. Particularly gruesome scenes early in the movie are mirrored later on in ways that mature them from senseless acts of aggression to acts of supplication for an end to such senselessness. The movie, with all its narrative and character twists, is a constant surprise of crescendoing revelation. I can’t recommend it enough.
I am rarely physically violent, but Seven Psychopaths is motivating me to reconsider the many ways I am violent towards the people around me, the many ways I am even slightly psychologically or emotionally abusive towards my neighbors. I have found myself, in the days since seeing this film, contemplative about my own violent tendencies and praying for creativity to figure out ways to lay myself down instead of forcing others to lay down for me. I, like Martin, don’t want to be a violent character in my own story. I want to tell a better story with my life and welcome others into it. That’s the story Jesus told, the story he lived, and with all our contested theology concerning guilt and grace, Jesus died for me and counsels me to die for others too.