Seven Psychopaths: energetically directed and intermittently amusing

Welcome to the mobsters' ball.

Seven Psychopaths (15)
dir: Martin McDonagh

The hero of Seven Psychopaths, written and directed by the playwright-turned-film-maker Martin McDonagh, is a screenwriter named Martin – Marty to his pals – who is working on a script called Seven Psychopaths. He doesn’t know what it is yet, only that it won’t be another movie about guys with guns in their hands. Marty is played by Colin Farrell, the star of McDonagh’s sparklingly executed first film, In Bruges, which was all about guys with guns in their hands. So Seven Psychopaths is a movie that knows it’s a movie, populated by characters who seem content to be archetypes. The question is whether it will fulfil its ambition to be a piece of violent cinema about the perils of violent cinema. Can McDonagh have his cake and blow it to smithereens too?

It must be said that the cake in question is a little on the stale side. The picture kicks off with a vignette featuring two hitmen distracted from the task in hand by their own incessant chatter. This must be a dig at the films of Quentin Tarantino, in which hoodlums tend to talk first about the pros and cons of the Dewey Decimal System, or grilling versus sautéing – and shoot later. But Pulp Fiction was 18 years ago. From such a distance, McDonagh’s intended sideswipe looks more like a matey punch on the shoulder.

He isn’t the first director to use film as a platform to examine the casually corrosive effects of screen violence, but most of the precedents (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Wim Wenders’s The End of Violence, Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon) haven’t placed fun high on their list of priorities. At least Seven Psychopaths is energetically directed and intermittently amusing. The movie presents Marty as no less blank than the page in his typewriter. The devil on his shoulder is the frenzied Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), a budding actor who urges him to write a revenge story with a desert shoot-out. (“What are we making here, a French movie?” Billy asks when his friend resists.) The reference to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle makes us doubly alert to character names, as we should be in a film where a saintly cancer sufferer is called Kieslowski (after the Polish director of one of the most persuasive of all anti-violence films, A Short Film About Killing).

Billy does his best to get Marty’s creative juices flowing by placing a newspaper ad calling for genuine psychopaths to contact him with their stories. It’s just the sort of unhinged scheme you’d expect from a man who earns his keep kidnapping dogs, which are then returned a few days later to their owners by Billy’s accomplice, Hans (Christopher Walken), in exchange for the inevitable cash reward. Hans is the angel of the film, a formerly vengeful man who has renounced his old ways and now offers to help with Marty’s screenplay as long as it isn’t violent. His notes are suitably withering, pinpointing the absence of decent female characters. It’s a transparent double-bluff that doesn’t let McDonagh off the hook for his own film’s identical shortcoming.

When Billy and Hans unknowingly snatch the beloved pooch of a local mobster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), LA’s professional criminals come storming into their cosy world of unambitious grifts. But these thugs are not quite top of the food chain: a serial killer is stalking the city bumping off figures in the organised crime business. Perhaps the murderer is a fan of Dexter, the TV series about a killer who kills killers, or maybe that echo is another sign that this script, written before In Bruges, has been sitting on the shelf too long.

The film is shot in zinging gobstopper colours and performed with vigour by most of the cast – the hyperactive Rockwell and the stately Walken, with his kabuki-like face, really have the measure of McDonagh’s firecracker dialogue. But despite the picture’s anti-violence philosophy, it is no more successful than Last Action Hero, the Arnold Schwarzenegger folly that tried to deconstruct the genre for which it was also an enthusiastic advocate. It’s usually the case in these situations that no one really gets what they want – the action lacks the proper sense of abandon and the blood-stained thesis is never quite searching enough. Seven Psychopaths proves once again that the lion may not lie down with the media studies professor.

Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell in "Seven Psycopaths"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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