Films that know they're films. You like them or you don't. Or you like them until they outstay their welcome, when they tip that invisible, subjective scale, when cleverness becomes smug self-satisfaction. When they pull you out of their own story so they can stand in front of you doing cartwheels and waving their arms, barking, "Hey, check me out! I'm a movie! And I'm movie-ing you right now! Lookit! Lookit!"
Martin McDonagh is the Irish writer-director behind the wild, entertaining, Colin Farrell-starring crime comedy In Bruges. And he's back to tell you the story of Martin (Farrell, again), a successful Hollywood screenwriter with a case of the blocks. He's got a new movie, called Seven Psychopaths. But it's just a title. There's no story. And the studio is breathing down his neck. He needs to find some psychopaths. So if you guessed that this movie is the story of how he got the story and how his own story became the story, then yes, you've guessed the story. Sort of.
It's impossible to ruin by giving away too much plot. There's too much plot to begin with. And as that plot rolls along, it ostentatiously tells you what's coming around each corner. But here goes: Martin has a mean girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) and a possibly deranged best friend named Billy (Sam Rockwell). Billy is a failed actor and full-time dog kidnapper, earning the rent from reward money when he returns the doggies safely to their owners. Billy, along with his canine-collecting friend, Hans (Christopher Walken), has stolen the dog of a definitively deranged man, Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Charlie will kill for the dog. Meanwhile, pretty much every other character is in the process of killing, being killed or just plain old dying of something else while other people are still trying to kill them: Tom Waits is a rabbit-adoring, Dexter-style serial killer of serial killers, Zeljko Ivanek has a gun aimed at Walken, innocent dog-walker Gabourey Sidibe might wind up dead herself and there's a mysterious masked man gunning down everyone he sees and leaving signature playing cards at the scene of each murder. This is not every eventually interlocking plate McDonagh sets spinning. There are more.
You're going to have to know your threshold before you see this one. Personally, that threshold doesn't exist. For my own taste, the skillful heightening and dismantling of reality is never too much. I'm a fan of characters commenting on their own action, noting that they are behaving exactly the way people in movies should or would or could behave given this or that or another set of circumstances. I'm a fan of films that showboat, I like it when the plot machinations are labeled and do the labeling right in front of my eyes. I like an exploded view. And I want to see how the parts put themselves back together and guide me through to the end. If you make me laugh while you're doing it then I like you even more.
And McDonagh accomplishes all of this in a way that'll remind you of other filmmakers (but mostly Quentin Tarantino, to reference one of his peers) without feeling copycattish. He's more rueful and defeatist, his worldview darker and less fantastical. He's also pushing his actors to act like actors. Farrell is a drunken Irishman, Waits is straight out of a Tom Waits song, Harrelson a Natural Born Killer and Walken, especially, is inhabiting a Christopher Walken impersonation to destroy all other Christopher Walken impersonations. That the whole thing resolves itself in a big crime-movie-ish manner that tells you how it's going to have a shootout before the shootout goes down and still leaves you laughing, well that's just extra sweet blood splattered icing on this convoluted, self-aware death-cake.