Dir. Martin McDonagh
(2012, R, 110 minutes)

In my review of Martin McDonagh‘s In Bruges I wrote, “It’s a black comedy that works when it’s black but not so much when it’s trying to be a comedy.” His followup, Seven Psychopaths, has the same problem, but all of it is trying to be a comedy, so none of it works. It’s grisly in its violence, but so glib in its execution – in every sense of the word – that no one in it or anything that happens to them seems to matter to the filmmaker. It’s nihilistic, lacking empathy and purpose.

It stars Colin Farrell as Marty, a struggling screenwriter with a new concept but no story. He wants to write about seven psychopaths, but he doesn’t know who they are, and he doesn’t want their story to be violent. His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is a font of material: he really is a psychopath, and the longer we get to know him, the less we understand why Marty is friends with him. Billy is cruel and narcissistic; offering him friendship is like shining light into a black hole. McDonagh seems to mistake him for a charming rogue. I found him repulsive.

Billy makes a living kidnapping dogs and returning them to their unsuspecting owners for the reward money. His partner in crime is Hans (Christopher Walken), the film’s best character, with a tragic history, a wife undergoing treatment for cancer, and deeply held religious beliefs. He is not shy about violence, but he is also philosophical, with hopes and desires. He cares about things, which makes him a rare entity in this film.

One day, Billy steals the dog of a ruthless mobster (Woody Harrelson), setting into motion a chase story that occasionally takes shape according to Marty’s screenplay; he wonders at one point if his revenge plot should take a detour into the desert, and then so does the film. But that minor blurring of reality and fiction is just another layer of ironic detachment on a film already too detached for its own good. McDonagh is a terrific director; some scenes and performances in In Bruges were haunting, human, and full of tension. But he’s better when treating his characters with sincerity, not the winking cynicism on display here. And as a dialogue writer, he should stop trying to be Tarantino. That role is already filled.