Opening next Friday, "Seven Psychopaths" has a title promising a certain amount of spilled blood and bad behavior, and the writer-director Martin McDonagh delivers on the promise. McDonagh notes, however, that his film contains "more dialogue in the midst of a shoot-out than the average movie featuring psychopaths with guns."
This is the second feature, the first being the droll hit-men comedy "In Bruges," from the celebrated Anglo-Irish playwright who burst onto the world stage with a flurry of harsh, eloquent black comedies set in his native Ireland. "Seven Psychopaths" picks up on a subject McDonagh, now based in London, addressed in what many consider his finest play to date, "The Pillowman": that of the storyteller's responsibility or culpability, if any, regarding the impact of his disturbing fabrications on others.
In the new film, a Hollywood-based screenwriter (Colin Farrell) writing a movie called "Seven Psychopaths" struggles with writer's block, with alcohol, with the relational demands of his woman (Abbie Cornish) and with the attempts of his struggling-actor friend (Sam Rockwell) to become a co-writer on the project. The actor makes his living by kidnapping dogs for reward money. When one particularly vicious owner (Woody Harrelson) becomes a mark, McDonagh's pitch-black "knockabout" (his word) begins weaving stories within stories, some questioning the artist's need and business imperative to provide the gore desired by the public, some gleefully exploiting that need for comic purposes.
McDonagh got lucky: The plays he wrote, which continue to be done around the world, have given him a very comfortable life and the latitude to make a movie every four years or so. If he wants to.
"I'm really lazy," he said recently over coffee in a downtown hotel restaurant. He notes that between "In Bruges" (2008) and "Seven Psychopaths" he wrote a play, "A Behanding in Spokane," starring Christopher Walken (another "Seven Psychopaths" cast member) and co-starring Rockwell. It ran briefly on Broadway in 2010. That play, he acknowledges, "didn't quite work." But it gave two of his seven psychopaths a nice warm-up.
"In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths" were written around the same time; McDonagh decided to film "In Bruges" first, so that he'd be ready, as a director, to take on the more expansive and complex action required by "Seven Psychopaths" in due course. If the movie carries any meaning, he says, it's in his interest in "the desire we have to write stories. And the worry about what kind of stories you're putting out there. People have said it's a very Tarantino-like film, but I feel, I hope, it's more of a comment on a kind of…ease with violence in those things. And probably in my stuff too."
McDonagh, who cites Chicago-based Tracy Letts ("Killer Joe," "Bug," "August: Osage County") as one of his champions of contemporary drama, continues the conversation: "I hope there's some kind of morality in all my work. It's not like I have sleepless nights about it. But sitting down to write about psychotics with guns in this film, I didn't want it to be a straight, easy psychotics-with-guns thing. Even in a comedic, knockabout way I wanted it to touch on something and not seem…empty."
To wit, though he hesitates to name the name: Tarantino. "'Pulp Fiction' is an amazing film, and I haven't made one nearly as good," McDonagh says. "That said, the last couple of his, I don't know. I couldn't stand 'Inglourious Basterds.' It's beneath him. It's beneath the person who made 'Pulp Fiction.'"
McDonagh remains close — though hellaciously competitive — with his brother, the writer-director John Michael McDonagh, whose film "The Guard" starred Brendan Gleeson of "In Bruges," among many others. The McDonagh boys play tennis twice monthly whenever they're in London. His brother, Martin claims with an exasperated grin, is the foot-faulter of the two. "I think he's more relaxed about the our whole dynamic since the success of 'The Guard,'" he says. "But the moment that film overtook 'In Bruges' at the box office in Ireland, he called me. After midnight. He couldn't wait to tell me."
"Seven Psychopaths" opens in Chicago Oct. 12.Copyright © 2015, RedEye