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 aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.