Sophomore features are never easy. Following up your first outing as director must be daunting even when that outing isn't as critically lauded and nigh-on flawless as Martin McDonagh's bold, heartfelt debut In Bruges, although this is a screenplay McDonagh was working on long before his Belgium-set debut. Seven Psychopaths is in many ways the polar opposite - it's sprawling where Bruges is contained, cinematic where Bruges is theatrical, bombastic where Bruges is minimal.
The story wastes no time in establishing its self-referential credentials - its not-coincidentally named hero Marty (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter with a drinking problem and a mean case of writer's block; he's been trying to finish his screenplay Seven Psychopaths for months.
His semi-sociopathic best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) tries to help him get inspired by stealing a fully-sociopathic gangster's (Woody Harrelson) beloved dog, thus dragging Marty into a surreal and potentially deadly on-the-run situation along with sanguine partner-in-crime Hans (Christopher Walken).
It's wildly entertaining to watch McDonagh test the boundaries of his own writing as he goes; at one stage Marty is chastised for his lack of strong female characters, an issue McDonagh is plainly more than aware of in his own screenplay. Abbie Cornish gets a thankless role as the sullen girlfriend, while Olga Kurylenko is similarly ill-used. Being aware of your flaws as a writer doesn't undo them, but it certainly helps when they're addressed this wittily.
That said, something just doesn't click about Seven Psychopaths. Rockwell and Walken are individually striking presences, but the trio never quite find a rhythm together, their dialogue lacking the razor-sharp rat-a-tat of McDonagh's previous work. And while this is far more of an out-and-out comedy than In Bruges it's also curiously less funny; without the tragic, painfully human core, the outlandish humour doesn't land with the same euphoric impact.
This is a very smart, very ambitious and thoroughly entertaining writing exercise, but a writing exercise is nevertheless what it is. The world of Seven Psychopaths is a curiously heartless one populated by compellingly off-kilter characters that don't feel real for even a second, in which morality is an afterthought and death is a punch line.
Photo gallery - BFI London Film Festival in pictures: