‘Seven Psychopaths’

Combining Two Gimmes

I’ve pointed out recently that psychopaths make for great characters for writers because they remove the need to have rationales that are rational. I guess you can say they have irrationales instead. The other easy thing for a writer is to write about the film making business because alas, it is true, it is writing about what we know best. Cue the writer with writers block story and Bob’s your executive producer.

So I don’t know what else to say about the conception end of this thing but that the writer gave himself two ‘gimmes’ in choosing to have seven psychopaths and a writer with writers block in LA. Otherwise this film could interpreted as 7 plot fragments in search of a proper story. Each one might have been a good film, but here they are, mashed together like some movie mash up. Maybe it is for the best – after all, it’s only the movies – why be so precious?

Here’s the obligatory Spoiler Alert moment!

What’s Good About It?

I know I’m bitching about it, but the disjointed narrative is good. It keeps you guessing and it’s very nice of the film makers to set up a game like that. Also, the interplay between the various psychopath scenarios do add up to a tapestry of tales that makes for interesting viewing. The cinematography switches between a kind of prosaic flat white LA light and a more poetic desert thing which works quite well.

The performances are hammy, but the film is so off kilter it doesn’t seem to matter. There’s Colin Farrell putting in his Irish expat routine, there’s Christopher Walken playing yet another psychopath, with Woody Harrelson paying yet another, and so on. Sam Rockwell sort of reprises his ‘Dangerous Mind’ psycho and Tom Waits is… well, he’s Tom Waits. It’s the dead opposite of ‘The Master’ where you’re not sure of what importance anybody has by their looks or name. Even so, the film manages to keep you guessing

What’s Bad About It

I don’t know if self-referential films really work as first order fiction. Meta-textual stuff is always going to lead a film to not being serious about itself. Films about film making are inevitably ironic because they reference the film business as well as film as a medium so they really have no shot at being a first order text. All comparisons to movies happen not in a vacuum but on a pressure cooker of meaning fragments. In the case of this movie, you feel you could do with less of the impulse to take jab at other movies.

Some of the writing is pretty ordinary. You can almost follow the plot without watching the movie which means it’s radio-with-pictures in parts. The set up is corny and I don’t know if having the bitchy girlfriend from Australia is particularly pertinent. It’s a total waste of an Abbie Cornish.

What’s Interesting About It

This is tough. In some ways it’s all interesting because the cliches slosh around like a fruits in the fruit punch bowl, and yet like ‘Argo’ there is something very ordinary and tedious about this misadventure. My suspicion is that this thing is miscast between the nihilist psychopath played by Sam Rockwell and the sensitive drunk writer being played by Colin Farrell. My sneaking suspicion is that it might have been cooler with the other way around.

Anyway, here are some things that popped out.

Rewriting Vietnam

The Vietnam War seems to have some kind of informing effect to this narrative, as one of the psychopaths is an ex-Viet Cong, Vietnamese officer who is hell bent on revenge against Charlie Company who wasted My Lai. It’s a cute bit of twist that this is made to weave back into the burning monks protesting the war. The film strives towards leaving violence behind, but in doing so it has to go through copious amounts of carton violence to get there.

The thought that popped into my mind was “what would Ingmar Bergman make of this?”

Bergman’s film ‘Persona’ centres around the moral abjection and horror to the image of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire, as it happened in the 1960s and seen on the TV news in Sweden. Liv Ulmann’s character goes into a state of aporia and shock as she tries to cut herself off from a world that horrifies her. You sort of wonder if Bergman would accept the contention that the self immolation as a selfless act really leads us to a world that is post-violence. Fromwhat I can recall, ‘Persona’ seemed to posit that violence in society stems from our indifferent practice of hypocrisy. I wonder if Bergman would have understood the irony of indifferent cruelty leads to enlightenment and laughed – or whether he might have simply spat the dummy.

The Zodiac Killer

One of the victims of the psychopaths turns out to be the Zodiac Killer. He is incorrectly murdered in 1975 in this film. It got me thinking about the prevalence of psycho-killers in popular imagination to the point that we sort of accept that there is a certain space they occupy in our cultural imagination. Even the Talking Heads song ‘Psychokiller’ has a weird anecdote where the woman who inspired David Byrne with the phrase ‘Psychokiller’ was herself brutally murdered by a random psychokiller.

It seems a shame that this film comes after the magnificent Fincher film because, while the killing of the Zodiac Killer in this film is funny, it seems like an exhausted subject, and the resulting laugh is dry and tired. It’s hard to imagine a higher point of psychokiller craziness than what we have in something like ‘Silence of the Lambs’, so having seven of them running around merely becomes an attempt to substitute quality with quantity.

now that I reflect on all this, I do wonder if the Zodiac Killer got to see ‘Dirty Harry’.

Seven Go Around Town

Seven anything is the makings of an epic. One of the story tropes in fiction is the seven who by some chicanes in fortune come together to accomplish a task. It’s ‘the Seven Samurai’, it is the ‘Magnificent Seven’ – and when it’s sold cheap it’s the ‘Three Amigos’ or ‘Ocean’s’ 11, 12 and 13.

Even the script laughs at this construction of its own film, when Rockwell’s Billy says, “Maybe we should make it Seven Lesbians and two of them are black, which would at least get it made”. That’s an odd line that suits an environment where film funding is driven by arbitrary political correctness routines, rather than Hollywood. One suspects the script was set somewhere else before it was moved to LA.

The fake climax described by Billy is intriguing in that all the generic cliches of other films are put together haphazardly, but being a movie about movies it leaves you wondering if there were more gags to be had just there.

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