Psychopaths are so commonplace nowadays they almost qualify as normal. Not only does the media serve up one mad gunman after another, glaring at us from page one, we also read about the ‘corporate psychopaths’ who make their way to the top of huge businesses, bring them down in flames, then move on to another lucrative post. As this is an age of paranoia, as well as psychosis, we all feel we have met a few of these characters.
So when a film called Seven Psychopaths comes along, directed by Martin McDonagh, who gave us that maverick gem of a movie, In Bruges (2008), one has great expectations for a story that says something witty and insightful about this phenomenon.
Alas, in almost every aspect of life it is a mistake to get one’s hopes up, and Seven Psychopaths is no exception. On another night in the same theatrette I went to see Robot and Frank, a film for which I held no preconceptions, and found it to be one of the best surprises of the year. But more of that later.
In Bruges was a violent film, but also a black comedy with a lot of innate charm. Seven Psychopaths is even more violent, but nowhere near as engaging, partly because the action is set in California rather than a medieval city in Belgium. While some might argue there is no place more eccentric than Belgium, when it comes to true weirdness the United States is in a league of its own. This is not your Olde World weirdness from a Hammer Horror flick, it is Henry Miller’s Air-Conditioned Nightmare of insular minds, rampant consumerism, narcissism as a way of life, and lifestyle-as-religion.
The Coen Brothers have explored this territory more adroitly than most contemporary filmmakers, and Seven Psychopaths comes across as an attempt to out-Coen the Coens while blowing a raspberry at Quentin Tarantino. This is evident in the patterns of violence that don’t follow the predictable formulas; in the peculiar dialogue, and scenarios that strain the viewer’s credulity, even in L.A.
Colin Farrell plays Martin, an Irish scriptwriter in Hollywood, who spends more time with a bottle than a manuscript, to the consternation of his girl-friend Kaya (Abbie Cornish). His friend, Billy, (Sam Rockwell) is an aspiring actor who can’t secure a role, and makes most of his income from a dog-kidnapping scam. His partner in canine crime is a Pole named Hans, played by Christopher Walken, whose very presence in any film signifies major weirdness.
When Billy kidnaps the beloved Shih tzu of gangster, Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), he puts everyone’s lives in danger. This is the catalyst for most of the action, but there are several subplots involved. Chief among these is the story of a masked vigilante who goes around murdering members of organised crime gangs.
Then there is Seven Psychopaths, the script Martin is drafting in the most half-hearted fashion. Billy is determined to help him get all the inspirational material he needs, even having the brilliant idea of placing an ad in the newspaper inviting psychopaths to come around and tell their stories. This brings in Zachariah (Tom Waits), who tells Martin how he and his wife became serial killers of the serial killers.
If you’re thinking this sounds convoluted you have identified the major problem with this movie. McDonagh has tried out too many themes and ideas, creating a messy jigsaw puzzle rather than a tantalising mystery. While the story progresses in crab-like fashion, we are constantly wondering where all the pieces fit.
Then there is the shallow, postmodern conceit of a film called Seven Psychopaths, directed by a man named Martin, which tells the story of a man named Martin who is writing the script for a film called Seven Psychopaths. It is hardly necessary to emphasise the artificiality of this concoction, which makes few concessions to realism. McDonagh might have done better to simplify the plot and spend more time on details and personalities. Instead, he gives us a film which reads like a coded primer on various script-writing techniques.
Like his namesake in the movie, McDonagh appears to be a displaced Irishman in Hollywood. In striving to capture all the bizarre nuances of the place, he reveals his own discomfort and lack of familiarity. It’s hard to satirise something you don’t thoroughly understand, and much of the humour feels clumsy.
Seven Psychopaths is not a complete failure. It has its amusing moments, and the action bumps along quickly enough. However, its shortcomings were thrown into sharper relief when I saw Bobcat Goldthwait’s black comedy, God Bless America, which opens in Melbourne this week and Sydney next month. This is the story of a middle-aged man and a teenage girl who loathe the meanness and vulgarity of American life, and set out to kill people “who really deserve to die.”
Although Goldthwait’s characters are a little too prone to speechify like evangelists, there is a refreshing simplicity in the idea of eliminating all those irredeemably awful people, from TV hate mongers to pests who make phone calls in movie theatres. The satire is brutal and direct, the message unambiguous: America is a sick, decadent society
There is nothing so crude in Martin McDonagh’s film. In fact, after we have peeled away the onion-like layers of plot, there is possibly nothing at all.
When a film tries too hard to be subversive it may have the opposite effect of leaving one hungry for a conventional Hollywood drama in which everything falls seamlessly into place.
This is not the case with Robot and Frank, a small-scale, genre-crossing movie with many genuinely subversive touches. It suggests, for instance, that crime might be a useful corrective when inflicted on pretentious, self-centred, rich dickheads. It hints that burglary is an activity that helps forestall the onset of dementia. Finally, it takes the science fiction paradigm of the treacherous relationship between man and machine, and turns it upside down. In this story, it is the man who corrupts an innocent robot.
Frank Langella, who is perfect in the title role, leads an impressive cast that includes Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler, with Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the robot.
Youthful director, Jake Schreier, has created a science fiction film set in a near future distinguishable from the present only by the addition of a few gadgets. The protagonist, Frank, is a former cat burglar who has been in and out of gaol in the past. Now he is an old man who lives alone in a small town, gradually losing his memory and becoming less able to look after himself. His son’s solution is to buy a robot who will do the cooking and cleaning, while monitoring his father’s health.
Frank initially rejects the robot, but soon comes to treat it as a friend. When the local library is taken over and transformed into a library ‘experience’ by a trendy new patron, his anger leads him to consider resuming his old ways. He realises he can use his robot buddy to help him break into the bulding and steal a valuable book, and then hit the patrons’ summer house.
Much of the appeal of the story lies in the personality of the robot, who looks like a diminutive astronaut and moves in a halting manner, like a character from The Thunderbirds. He keeps saying he is only a machine, without human emotions, but we come to distrust this self-assessment.
In only his second feature Schreirer has taken on one of science’s big conundrums – the question of artificial intelligence. If machines have the capacity to think and to learn, will they eventually supplant their creators? This idea has provided fuel for countless science fiction films, but Schreirer’s robot is so good natured we marvel at his patience and equanimity.
When enlisted as Frank’s partner in crime, the robot seems to try and balance the need to keep his patient alert and active, with the issue of breaking the law. His conscience is determined by the limits of his logic and programming, but within those limits there is considerable room to move. There is also a constant undercurrent of comedy in the conversations between Frank and his mechanical carer.
By contrast, when two robots meet they have nothing to say to each other, having bonded so completely with humans they do not recognise any underlying family identity. I was reminded of artist, Ian Fairweather, who claimed that in old Shanghai he became so thoroughly immersed in Chinese society he found the sight of fellow Caucasians distasteful.
This movie also addresses one of the more prosaic science fiction scenarios: the spectre of an aging population and the inability of children to look after their elderly parents. The robot is a technological solution to a moral dilemma. After watching this film I was completely sold on the idea. Where do you buy one of these things?
Seven Psychopaths, UK, rated R , 110 mins
Robot and Frank, USA, rated PG-13, 89 Mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, November 17, 2012