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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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times