London playwright Martin McDonagh made the transition to film in 2008 with the existential thriller In Bruges, which he also directed, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and a strong cult following. In it, Colin Farrell played one of two hitmen who arrive at a spiritual dead end in Belgium, but his latest thriller Seven Psychopaths puts Hollywood in the crosshairs.
Talking to RadioTimes.com, McDonagh thinks carefully before describing the film as “meta-textual or meta-fictional”. He casts Colin Farrell again, this time as screenwriter Marty who dreams up the title Seven Psychopaths and little else, before crossing paths with a real-life gangster played by Woody Harrelson. McDonagh admits to naming the hero after himself in a self-referential gesture.
“Like Colin says in the film, I had the title but only one psychopath and he wants it to be about love and peace. That’s the same place I was in; I had the story about the Quaker psychopath played by Harry Dean Stanton and nothing else but the title, so yeah, there are degrees of ‘self-referential’ in it, but I’ve thrown plenty of red herrings in there too. His name is my name and he’s Irish and I’m half-Irish, but there’s plenty that’s not me too, so it’s always fun throwing those things into the mix as well and playing with people’s perceptions and expectations.”
Fortunately, McDonagh has never encountered a psychopath either – let alone seven – but his film has a feverish energy and he takes special delight in pulling apart the traditional gangster film. “There was something joyful about it for me because it takes the piss out of lots of stereotypical Hollywood gangster movies, and it’s not like I’ve ever been in a position of having to make those kinds of movies, so I’m not reacting against a Hollywood that I’m a part of. I wasn’t trying to work out stuff that was bugging me, but I was definitely trying to comment on violent movies a bit and I felt that maybe we could take ‘guys with guns’ and those conventions to a more interesting place than a Hollywood film.”
McDonagh underscores bloody scenes with ethical questions and Christopher Walken is his mouthpiece, as one of Marty’s friends and Harrelson’s sworn enemy. Even after his loved ones are targeted, he stays cool, never cutting loose in the way Walken often does. “See, that would have been the expectation,” says McDonagh. “I think it’s nice to confound those things. Although there’s one scene, when he confronts Woody Harrelson, which is especially powerful because that violence and malevolence is under the surface but you can almost see it in his eyes. The tension is all there, but it’s because of what we think is going to happen, which is for Christopher Walken to blow up. That’s almost more interesting to play with than to have him explode.”
Still, the film flows with claret, but McDonagh doesn’t have a hard time reconciling the graphic blood spatter with the critique of screen violence. “The thing is you don’t want to make an art-house film that only two Belgian guys go and see in a cinema on the Isle of Sheppey. If you want to make statements about Hollywood conventional films, it’s more fun to make one and attack it from the inside out; to pull in the fans of those types of films, to then explain it, or do it in a better way.”
So, is he trying to educate the movie-going masses?
“Educate would be too heavy-handed, but yeah, maybe to show…” He takes another moment to think about it. “Thing is, there are Hollywood gangster movies that have been done really well. Pulp Fiction is a great film, but then so many of them are easy rip-offs and ugly violence for no other reason than that’s what sells. I think that’s what we’re trying to play around with in the context of a violent film.”
Together, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths redefine the thrill that comes with watching bad guys getting sprayed with bullets, but fans of hardboiled crime flicks should be warned to expect the unexpected. And on the matter of his third feature, the same advice applies. “Well, this one’s of a meta nature, so I think the next one will be more a pure noir, or pure rom-com – whichever one it is.” With a mischievous grin, he issues a dare: “Bet on which one you think it’ll be.”
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