We Irish are reputed for sentimentality, we do a good line in fighting, and, in a trope not lost on Seven Psychopaths, which for my money is nothing less than the film of the year, a piece of theatre comparable to “Waiting for Godot” and a welcome memorial to the violence-as-beauty obsessions of post-Tarantino hipster cinema, fond of the old fire water.
Well, I’m not drinking alcohol these days – a manifestation of self-discipline looking for physical health rather than the northern Irish Protestant puritanism of my youth – and my abiding philosophical preoccupation is non-violence, but I’ll take the sentimentality if it’s served with wit. So Seven Psychopaths, written and directed by the London Irish artist playwright and film-maker Martin McDonagh, made me laugh out loud, carried me gently awestruck at its fusion of Americana vistas and neo-magical realist portrayal of lost men seeking a path to a meaningful life, and ultimately left me as moved as the classic weepies of my childhood.
That’s a lot to ask for from a film ostensibly about a guy trying to write the most violent movie you might think of, but Seven Psychopaths is really an exploration of the power of storytelling – particularly the cinematic kind – to shape the limits of what we consider possible.
Our hero (he’s not really a protagonist – things happen to him rather than at his invocation) is a drunk Irish writer (Colin Farrell) in LA trying to do what everyone in LA is trying to do. He’s got a buddy (Sam Rockwell) who at first glance may seem like a cliche (same with Woody Harrelson’s mafia bad guy), but is revealed to be one of the strangest and most complex characters in the movies.
It’s McDonagh’s gift to write characters who live “between the steeple and the gargoyle,” capable of both disturbing cruelty and the kind of love that invites empathy or may even teach the audience a lesson in kindness. He does this with multiple figures in Seven Psychopaths – even small supporting roles like that played by Tom Waits and Zeljko Ivanek are infused with humanity and darkness at once. They’re like Hannibal Lecter played by Harpo Marx or Lassie.
The standout – and I really do mean outstanding – performance is by Christopher Walken, an actor who too often only gets to play a caricature of himself. In a wonderful, joyous meta-movie move, his performance is shadowed here by the great Harry Dean Stanton, who has no dialogue, but says everything we need to hear in his rumpled stance and seemingly vacant eyes. But it’s Walken who owns the film – and my heart – in his shabby-glorious sketch of a man with many reasons to self-victimize, but who has invested in the inner life of a Christian peace activist.
No joke: the true hero of Seven Psychopaths is a Quaker who explicitly avows belief in Jesus. Along with his wife, who engages in what might be called a form of Gandhian civil disobedience when confronted by a manifestation of evil, they become perhaps the most endearing and politically provocative cinematic couple since Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi’s economically disenfranchised audience-healthy guilt-trippers in Leo McCarey’s 1937 masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow.
Seven Psychopaths is a parable that should resonate with anyone who values scriptural, fictional, and historical investigations of what violence can do to the soul, and the responsibility of storytellers to honor their power for what it is.
Martin McDonagh’s brother, John Michael, travels not dissimilar terrain in his earlier film The Guard – a movie whose pleasures continue to deepen, even now after my fifth viewing. Artfulness doesn’t always run in the family – but the McDonagh Brothers are onto something – a clearly Irish sensibility married to post-critical, post-self-referential Hollywood, an appreciation of gothic and satirical genres, a willingness not to hide from the truth about how people often relate to each other, a coruscation of bad religion mingling with a welcoming of the good kind, and a deep affection for men who decide to do the right thing without making a fuss about it.
The Guard may be the most accurate mythic film depiction of what Ireland is like today: weary from economic crisis, romantic about the land, skeptical of unearned authority, landscape weather-beaten and gorgeous, and unshackling from sexual repression. Also, its people are learning the gifts of a diverse ethnic culture, nursing wounds from decades of violent conflict, and beginning to learn to talk to each other. There’s so much going on in this movie that it begs repeated visits – like Seven Psychopaths, which you should enjoy more once you know what it’s actually doing.
I feel the same way about Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, a film about which I felt ambivalent, and even alienated, making the mistake I most often critique in others – that of confusing portrayal with advocacy. The line between our culture’s addiction to fake-violence-as-entertainment, and its addiction to real-violence-as-a-way-of-solving-problems is so blurred that it’s sometimes difficult to tell when a film-maker is getting off on the depiction of bloodshed, or when she or he is posing questions about the future of the human race and life on earth.
In Bruges, The Guard, Seven Psychopaths, and Martin’s Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter (embedded below) constitute a fascinating familial spin on a welcome theme: the Irish know the impact of violence, we have something to say about it, and we’re not short of words. (Alas, thus far, we’re still short of well-drawn female characters, though Fionnula Flanagan’s cameo in The Guard lingers long in the mind, and that’s a start.)
With the imperfect McDonagh Brothers, we have something like what might happen if Samuel Beckett married Slavoj Zizek and went to live in a commune run by Noam Chomsky and Wim Wenders. Jesus would be there too, but he wouldn’t make a fuss about it.
Gareth Higgins is a writer and activist from Northern Ireland. He writes regularly on his own blog, God Is Not Elsewhere, co-hosts the award-winning movie podcast, The Film Talk, and is the Executive Director of The Wild Goose Festival.