‘Seven Psychopaths’’ is many things, chief among them a long-overdue love letter to Christopher Walken and a crudely drawn ransom note from Sam Rockwell. Mostly it represents playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh trying mightily to up his game. Having disturbed theatergoers with stage dramas like “The Cripple of Inishmaan’’ and “The Pillowman,’’ and having delighted movie audiences with the existential gangster comedy “In Bruges’’ (2008), the Irish bad boy of letters wants to prove he can do it all: make a parody Tarantino movie while going Tarantino one better, pull off a Charlie Kaufman-style meta-movie with genre film juice, give a Guy Ritchie crime caper a literate spin. Basically he wants to be both Coen brothers in one body.
He comes close. “Seven Psychopaths’’ is absurdly entertaining even after it disappears up its own hindquarters in the last act, and it gives some of our weirder actors ample room to play. Surprisingly, Colin Farrell isn’t one of them: As Marty (nudge-nudge), a struggling Hollywood screenwriter with a fondness for the grape, he’s the film’s straight man. McDonagh’s eye and ear are equally sharp, though. When Marty’s agent calls to ask where his latest screenplay is, the camera calmly pans to an empty wine bottle. Later, the hero is the subject of this exchange between two other characters: “Marty’s my writer friend I was telling you about.’’ “I could smell the booze.’’
The first speaker is Billy (Rockwell), a part-time actor and full-time dog-napper who embodies the movie’s hyperactive chaos principle. Marty’s working on a script called “Seven Psychopaths’’ and Billy’s desperate to help him. Maybe a little too desperate. We see snippets of the movie in Marty’s mind — Psychopath #1, Psychopath #2 — or perhaps they’re playing out in real life. Hard to tell but bloody enjoyable (and joyously bloody) to watch. One of these mini-movies stars Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker psycho, and that casting almost justifies the movie by itself.
Our first sight of Walken is similarly suitable for framing: He’s wearing a cravat, holding a lap dog, and reading a pamphlet about breast cancer. All of these details will turn out to make sense. As Hans, Billy’s fellow dog-napper — they wait until the “Missing’’ posters go up, then return the pooches for the reward — Walken teleports in from Alpha Centauri with a performance of gentle but profound strangeness. McDonagh knows he’s lucky to have the actor, and he knows how truly fond of him we’ve all become over the decades; there’s a showdown late in “Seven Psychopaths’’ where the audience’s deep, satisfying belly laughs come purely from Walken’s way of delivering a line.
Hans and Billy have stolen the prize shih tzu of Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a fearsome crime kingpin who is the movie’s third or fourth psychopath, depending on where you started counting. The plot eventually comes down to Costello and his gang swearing eternal vengeance on the two while Hans visits his dying wife (a nicely weary Linda Bright Clay) in the hospital and Marty tries to finish his screenplay while ducking the falling bodies.
Or is the screenplay writing him? “Seven Psychopaths’’ breaks down the walls of its own narrative early and often with a manic glee that ultimately spins out of control. McDonagh’s self-referential dialogue cuts both ways: When Billy tells Marty, “Your women characters are terrible. They have nothing to say!’’ he has a point, and Abbie Cornish as the hero’s underwritten girlfriend (at one point wearing a winkingly gratuitous wet T-shirt) proves it.
Billy also says about Marty’s screenplay, “The first half should be the perfect setup for a revenge flick, and then the lead characters should just drive into the desert, pitch a tent, and talk for the rest of the movie.’’ Which is pretty much what happens, although there’s a little more gunplay toward the end. Luckily, McDonagh writes dialogue that’s spring-loaded with wit, and he regards three characters sitting around chatting as a bet to be taken and doubled down upon.
There’s so much going on in “Seven Psychopaths,’’ in fact, that the movie finally bursts apart at the seams. The parade of secondary characters includes Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious’’) as the unfortunate dog-walker who lost Costello’s beloved Bonnie, Tom Waits — clutching a bunny — as one half of a husband-wife vigilante team (“We go around the country killing people who go around the country killing people’’), and Kevin Corrigan being Kevin Corrigan.
It’s all delightful and exhausting and the only thing that sticks to your emotions is Walken and his moonbeam grace. Rockwell, meanwhile, plays Billy crazier and crazier — and McDonagh lets him — and the performance ends up hijacking the film. By the time several of the characters get their just deserts, you’re more than ready for the check.
It’s a hell of a meal nonetheless, and worth a little acid indigestion. And McDonagh proves he can juggle multiple bowling balls and only drop a few of them on his toes and ours. Still, as high-spirited and inventive as it is, “Seven Psychopaths’’ represents a case of more equaling less. If he can ever turn that formula around, Martin McDonagh may yet be a director of real consequence.