Martin McDonagh's In Bruges - the 2008 black comedy about two hit men holed up in a pretty little hotel in a pretty little town in pretty little Belgium - was an inspired and nutty fish-out-of-water noir.
McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths, which likewise stars Colin Farrell as one of its pair of protagonists, is, on the other hand, set in decidedly unpretty swaths of Los Angeles, a colorfully tawdry scape occupied by hookers, cross dressers, senior citizens, and crooks. And where Farrell's character, Marty, is a fish in water - a Hollywood screenwriter, albeit one who does more drinking than writing. (His excuse: he's Irish.)
Meta and messy, Seven Psychopaths does not hang together like In Bruges, and as Marty struggles to cobble up a compelling plotline about hit men and serial killers, some of McDonagh's creative desperation seems to bleed onto the screen, too.
But put a gun in the hands of Woody Harrelson and some glorious gab in the mouth of Christopher Walken - the most deadpan of deadpanning thespians - and it's impossible not to make something of this profanity-flying conflation. References to movies abound, and the soundtrack's playlist - from "The First Cut is the Deepest" to Hank Williams to Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys doing "Different Drum" - approaches genius.
Sam Rockwell, nattering and nervous, is Marty's friend and foil, Billy - an out-of-work actor trying to help Marty with his script. At the same time, Billy is busy assisting his buddy Hans (Walken) with a dognapping scheme. They steal a pooch when the owner's not looking, then return it to the bereft victim a few days later, collecting a reward for finding the "lost" pet.
This scam backfires, however, when a shih tzu they've absconded with turns out to belong to the trigger-happy, tattooed Charlie (Harrelson), a mobbed-up madman. Domestic animals play a significant role in McDonagh's body of work (consider the cat in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the cow in "Six Shooter," McDonagh's Oscar-winning short), and in Seven Psychopaths the canines run amok. And then there's Tom Waits, as a homicidal nutjob who runs his murderous hands lovingly through the fluffy tufts of his bunny. (It's great to see the croaking singer-songwriter, who once dabbled in acting quite a bit, back on the screen.)
There are scenarios-within-scenarios, as Marty - his eyebrows flying - imagines bloody tales of a Quaker killer and an avenging Viet Cong. McDonagh may not want to hear it, but this all owes more than a tip of the baseball cap to Quentin Tarantino. And when everyone decides to head for the desert - the otherworldly Joshua Tree - the parched tableaux evoke John Ford and Howard Hawks, too. The crazy crossfires and gushes of blood that quickly ensue recall another director, Sam Peckinpah.
In keeping with the highly self-referential nature of Seven Psychopaths, at one point Walken's Hans criticizes Farrell's Marty for the screenwriter's failure to create believable female roles.
"Your women characters are awful," he declares. Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko, both of whom appear on the periphery of Seven Psychopaths, would likely agree.