Once Martin McDonagh came up with the title Seven Psychopaths, there was no going back. His protagonist/alter-ego Marty (Colin Farrell), an Irish screenwriter in L.A. and perhaps the only non-psychopath among the principal characters, faces a similar dilemma under different circumstances. Unlike award-winning playwright McDonagh, Marty is struggling as his girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish) loses patience with his position on the ladder of success. Marty comes up with a surefire screenplay title but needs some stories about psychopaths, with his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) eager to assist.
Billy helps Marty’s Buddhist psychopath character evolve into a Quaker psychopath, played by Harry Dean Stanton whenever McDonagh switches to scenes from the actual screenplay or tales that inspire it. In real time, rookie dognapper Billy has stolen Bonny, mobster Charlie’s (Woody Harrelson) beloved Shi Tzu. Charlie holds Billy’s partner Hans (Christopher Walken) liable, leading to big trouble for the more seasoned dog thief. Marty, meanwhile, has a disturbing encounter with a psycho (Tom Waits) who kills other psychos. The only thing that makes sense to Marty, oddly calm Hans and increasingly erratic Billy is a road trip to Joshua Tree.
McDonagh doesn’t merely fall back on a road trip to move his fable forward, although desertscapes get the same loving treatment that medieval architecture did in his 2008 minor masterpiece In Bruges. Seven Psychopaths is refreshingly unorthodox on the level of The Big Lebowski, mixing clever film-about-film elements with dialogue that McDonagh crafted with care. Every member of the ensemble is spot-on, with Rockwell particularly transcendent. And both the introductory homage to Boardwalk Empire and subplot about a Vietnamese psychopath that becomes heartbreakingly relevant toward the end elevate the film to a major masterpiece. MATT KELEMEN