London-born writer-director Martin McDonagh hit big with In Bruges in 2008, an excellent existential comedy about two contract killers at a loose end in Belgium. He explores similar territory in Seven Psychopaths, except the backdrop is California and the movie business is the primary target in a self-referential and, at times, self-indulgent comedy that comes blacker than a serial killer's wardrobe.
McDonagh casts Colin Farrell in a role that's almost diametrically opposed to the witless hoodlum he played in In Bruges. Marty is an expat screenwriter who drinks too much and thinks too much (named to suggest a twisted self-portrait by the director) and strives to get inside a murderer's mindset for a new serial killer film. But when violence comes to his doorstep in the shape of local mobster Charlie (a leering Woody Harrelson), he's no longer the one in control of the story.
He plays it larger-than-life, whilst surprisingly, Christopher Walken does the opposite, keeping his cool as Hans - even though he's the mastermind of the dog-napping ring and now, a marked man. His scenes are poignant too, even while looking death in the face with a blank stare.
There are many other complications, including the film that unfolds in Marty's head about a vengeful Quaker (Harry Dean Stanton), Tom Waits as an ageing Clyde-type looking for his Bonnie and the mystery of a masked assassin who's going around taking out gangsters.
There's much wisecracking, navel-gazing and blood spatter, all of which culminates in a shootout in the desert, because Billy insists that this is the way a crime thriller should end. But it's as if McDonagh is frustrated by those audience expectations and reacts violently against them. Through Marty he struggles to find a different resolution - one that doesn't equate justice with more killing.
If there's a certain thrill in watching bad guys getting their brains sprayed across a wall, it's surpassed by the intrigue of having a filmmaker reveal the inner workings of his own mind. It's not pretty - in fact, the plot gets very messy at times - and this will frustrate those who are looking for a simple bit of kiss-kiss, bang-bang, because McDonagh uses Marty to question every turn of the plot and experiments with different outcomes. Whichever way he turns, though, somebody gets killed.
Because the violence is so bloody and chaotic, the atmosphere is unnerving, but the film is also very funny. Apart from the witty, rapid-fire dialogue, McDonagh draws out the absurdity of men who are blindly driven by the credo of 'a man's gotta do'. The mood is summed up in the opening scene when a pair of hitters (played by Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) debate the moral implications of killing 'a chick', so caught up in the Tarantino-style banter that they don't see Psycho No.3 coming up behind them, swinging a gun. Much like this film, you think you know what's coming, then: boom.
Gallery - 'Seven Psychopaths' characters in pictures: