7 psychopathically good performances

ANYONE who's seen Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges" knows that it's a hard movie to get out of your head, and a fun one to revisit.

The bleakly funny (if that's the word) story tracks two hitmen (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson) in a dark and wintry Belgian tourist town, awaiting instruction on their next job. The movie was a writerly examination (McDonagh is a decorated playwright) of the process of killing time, until the time came for killing, with an ending as medieval as the town itself.

Now McDonagh is back, with the garishly titled "Seven Psycopaths," working in sunny Los Angeles and re-teaming with Farrell, who this time plays a character apparently modeled on McDonagh himself.

Farrell plays an Irish screenwriter named Martin, working on his first Hollywood project. As the movie opens, he's got little more than a blank page and an idea that his movie should be about psychopaths. He starts with one, and with the help of a trouble-prone friend (Sam Rockwell), ends up involved with enough psychopaths to flesh out his screenplay and account for the movie's title.

The story widens to include a roster of wildly disparate characters - dog-nappers, Quaker vigilantes, mobsters, serial killers, serial killers who kill serial killers - and a cast overflowing with oddball talents like Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson.

There are some old Tarantino hands in there, and McDonagh has been compared to him, but McDonagh's voice is his own, and it reflects his unique sensibility that results from being raised in Ireland and England and weened on American books and movies.

Somehow it all figures in his themes: referendums on faith, guilt, damnation and a yearning for peace that goes hand in hand with a resignation to cycles of violence.

McDonagh manages to turn all of this into a strange kind of comedy, much of it built around his comically unresolved feelings about movie violence (geeks with note the references to "Taxi Driver" and Pacific Rim action movies), which differs from Tarantino's eager fetishism.

McDonagh's made his cultural dislocation and confusion a subject in his movie. Farrell's screenwriter ends up in the desert with Rockwell and Walken as they hide out from mobsters, embellishing and critiquing his script (most hilariously in the way it treats women).

But the story, for all of its showy worldplay, violent outbursts and meta-movie jokes, rests on the same pillars that supported "In Bruges" - it is phenomenally well-acted.

Farrell does his best work since . . . "In Bruges," Walken raises his game from "more cowbell" kitsch, and Harrelson and Rockwell make strong contributions.

It's the performances that hold the movie together when the crazed ambition of this enterpise threatens to pull it apart.

I had the same feeling I had after "In Bruges." I can't wait to watch it again.

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog at philly.com/keepitreel.

Seven Psychopaths

Directed by Martin McDonagh. With Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Gabourey Sidibe, Olga Kurylenko, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits, Brendan Sexton III, Collin Farrell, Kevin Corrigan. Distributed by CBS Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 49 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use).