Writer-director Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths feels like the work of a worn-out man. Which is funny, because he hasn't exactly been in the movie business for very long. So maybe the most surprising thing about this smug and stupid work is that it's only McDonagh's second full-length feature, following 2008's In Bruges.
An ostentatiously clever crime picture that tinkers with its genre's thematic conventions while occasionally functioning within its formal constraints, Seven Psychopaths follows screenwriter Martin (Colin Farrell, the world's healthiest alcoholic) around Los Angeles as he tries to finish his high-concept screenplay (which, in the first of the film's many needless self-referential nods, is titled Seven Psychopaths) with some help from his goofball friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell). But Billy, who, along with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken), makes some extra dough by abducting dogs and returning them for the reward money, quickly finds himself in jeopardy, because he's kidnapped a shih tzu belonging to local crime boss Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson). Costello swears revenge and gives chase amid much posturing and violence.
For crime pictures — even ostentatiously clever ones — this setup remains as flavorful as a piece of tofu, even if it's soaked through with supporting turns from the likes of Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits. McDonagh doesn't seem to think much of his main story, either; he's constantly floating away from the Martin-Billy-Charlie plot and into a miasma of twice-told tales starring Quaker psychopaths, Vietnamese avengers, and "'serial-killer' killers." Some of these digressions are engaging in a campfire-story kind of way, but most of them aren't.
It's not as though meta-commentary and self-referentiality in film can't be exciting. Such narrative hijinks, when executed with a certain angry exuberance, can hot-wire a clichéd plot while generating plenty of energy in a film's margins and corners. Such tactics worked terrifically throughout Shane Black's 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, another L.A. noir similarly studded with smart, oddball casting and juiced by several narrative stunts and tricks.
Black's genre riffing frequently yielded shocking laughs. McDonagh's don't; he prefers to lean on comic violence and stereotypes about Irish drunks and French movies. He may be intelligent enough to let one of his characters stop midway through the movie and critique Seven Psychopath's rampant misogyny, but he's not honest enough to look closely at the form that misogyny often takes — that of a white man threatening a black woman. (Whether those scenes are justified/canceled out by other scenes in the film that feature a black woman mutilating white men are for those more smitten with the film's layers to decide.)
The mysteriously overpraised acting in the film is "acting" at its most inauthentic and draining. Everybody, that is, except Christopher Walken. Although he looks like he's doomed to portray "Christopher Walken" for the rest of his career, Walken is atypically relaxed here. He plays down his natural rhythms and emphasizes his character's autumnal distraction. Even as he lays in a pool of his own blood, he seems touched with something resembling wisdom.