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Movie psychos much cuter, funnier than the real thing

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Seven Psychopaths, which opened in Winnipeg on Friday, is a psycho-killer comedy, a narrow little genre that is at once horrifically violent and weirdly hilarious. Written and directed by Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), it's a twisty look at the cult of the movie psychopath.

Colin Farrell plays a displaced Irish writer who also happens to be named Martin. Half-drunk and dazed by L.A. sunlight, he's stalled out on a screenplay, which in typical meta-movie fashion is called Seven Psychopaths. The characters within our movie spend a lot of time gabbing about their movie, the two storylines eventually fusing into one sly, self-referencing postmodern circuit.

McDonagh hands out lots of bloody violence, while examining our cinematic craving for it. He also goes after our fascination with psychopaths while stacking up seven of his own. (If not more: After the first half-dozen killings, I kind of lost count.) This might be seen as having it both ways if McDonagh weren't so funny and smart, and the cast wasn't so deliciously crazed.

The movies have constructed a Hollywood version of the psychopath, making him (or occasionally her) into an enigmatic, endlessly interesting antihero. Oh, that Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. So refined, so cultured, such exquisite manners -- at least until he rips your face off and eats you. Or that Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. A murderous coin-flipper with a Prince Valiant haircut, he's like a walking metaphor for existential absurdity.

With competition like this, onscreen Martin realizes he needs a catchy angle. Maybe a mass-murdering Buddhist psychopath, he thinks. Or perhaps Amish? Clearly, his screenplay needs a hook.

Meanwhile, he's surrounded by off-screen Martin's psychopaths -- Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton and Woody Harrelson, all infinitely more interesting than actual psychopaths. Waits travels everywhere with a white bunny. Stanton is a Quaker. Harrelson's one true love is a shih tzu pup named Bonnie. McDonagh seems to be taking the "psychopath with a quirk" trope to deliberately silly extremes.

As well, several of the titular seven are psychopaths who kill only other psychopaths. This could be a sideways dig at Dexter, TV's sadistic serial killer who preys only on other sadistic serial killers. Dexter plays into our voyeuristic fascination with cruelty while simultaneously satisfying our indignant demand for justice. It's a morally dubious proposition, and again, McDonagh seems to deflate it by overdoing it. I mean, how many serial-killer-killing serial killers is one guy likely to know?

There's even a question about whether Martin himself is pathological. Struggling with writer's block, Martin becomes a little predatory, prone to seeing the human beings around him only as potential material. Then there's his comically vicarious relationship to violence. ("He's not part of this," says Martin's lunatic friend Sam Rockwell during a particularly nasty stretch. "He's just writing a movie.") McDonagh gets a lot of comic play from the idea that pencil-pushing literary types are so often fascinated with brutal criminal underworlds where they themselves wouldn't last a minute.

Maybe the final word is given to the sublimely time-ravaged Christopher Walken, who plays a courtly, cravat-wearing dog-napper. "You're the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting," he says accusingly to Martin. "But after a while, they get tiresome, don't you think?"

Jon Ronson, the British journalist who wrote The Psychopath Test, might concur. Journeying among people who score high on the Hare Psychopathy checklist, he finds not colourful movie maniacs but mostly vain, tedious, self-aggrandizing gasbags. He also points out that the average psychopath is more likely to be guilty of callous corporate malfeasance than blood-splattered slayings.

McDonagh might be suggesting that real-life psychopaths are a drag, but, paradoxically, he has a helluva time doing it. Whatever the final body count in Seven Psychopaths, clearly the Hollywood-style psychopath is not quite dead.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2012 G5

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