Marty (Colin Ferell) is a successful screenwriter who is having a hard time writing his latest script. He has a title, "Seven Psychopaths" and an idea to find some interesting psychopath stories, as the only one he has so far is in mind so far is a Buddhist pacifist. This may explain his trouble getting anything written. He knows his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) is angry with him, but she won't tell him why.
He's soon joined by his friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) a big fan of Marty's writing, and a constant reminder to Marty that he drinks too much. Billy suggests the Jack of Hearts killer as a possible psychopath for the script. Marty agrees that a killer who only kills members of the mafia "and yakuza" would be a great addition to his cast of characters. Marty also comes up with the idea of a Quaker psychopath, (played in the story by Harry Dean Stanton) who stalks the man who killed his daughter for decades, long after he serves a prison sentence and reforms. The man is finally so determined to be free of the Quaker that he cuts his own throat, thinking that Hell may be the only place the Quaker can't follow him. However, the last thing the man sees is the Quaker cutting his throat as well. The Quaker's story prompts Billy to question Marty's alcoholism, since he recalls telling Marty the Quaker story not long ago, although Marty sincerely believes he wrote it.
Billy is a struggling actor, who loses a job by punching his director. To make money, he and his friend Hans (Christopher Walken) kidnap neighborhood dogs and hold them until the owners post rewards, which they claim when returning them. Their operation is interrupted when they steal the Shih-Tzu of local psychopath and mobster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson.) One of his men has heard of suspicious dognappings, which points them in the direction of Billy and Hans, as well as Marty who's staying with Billy after his girlfriend kicks him out of the house.
Billy puts an ad in the paper asking for psychopaths willing to tell Marty their story. This ad is answered by a man named Zacariah (Tom Waits) who shows up carrying a rabbit. He tells Marty that he once rescued an injured girl from a judge's basement, and the two fell in love and became serial killer-killers, until he got tired of the cruelty and bloodshed causing his girlfriend to leave him after they dispatched the Zodiac killer. He asks Marty to put a message to his girlfriend in the movie when it gets made, and Marty promises to do so "on his life."
It isn't long before Charlie's men close in. They question Marty and Hans at the dog kennel although they're saved unexpectedly by the Jack of Hearts killer. Charlie himself starts looking for Hans, finding his wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay) in the hospital. Realizing that Hans is about to enter the hospital for his daily visit, she angers Charlie, who kills her, and leaves the room, which tips off Hans in time to keep from getting spotted.
Marty, Billy and Hans decide to retreat to the desert. On the way they discuss Marty's screenplay, Marty states that he wants to make a movie without a conventional shootout ending, as he told Billy earlier, " I'm sick of all these stereotypical Hollywood murderer scumbag type psychopath movies. I don't want it to be one more film about guys with guns in their hands. I want it, overall, to be about love, and peace."
Billy insists that a shootout is exactly the way to go, even pointing out a spot along the way that would be perfect for the final shootout. Marty reveals that he's having trouble finishing the story of one of his psychopaths, a Vietnamese man who was Viet Cong and journeyed to America after the war, to take what revenge he can for the brutality and destruction of his village. Marty can't get past a scene of the man in his hotel room dressed as a priest, with a hooker arriving, as he plots his next move. They toss it back and forth along and Billy also contributes his vision of an over the top final showdown scenario. All the while, their own showdown approaches, as Charlie discovers where they are, and we wonder whose ending will happen Billy's or Marty's.
This film has seen a lot of comparison to Quentin Tarantino's work, a comparison I really don't get, other than using crime as a story point, and offbeat dialogue. McDonagh clearly has his own style and concerns which are a long way away from Tarantino. In "Seven Psychopaths" he both tells a story about a number of psychopaths and takes a look at our preoccupation with them (and violence) in the movies. This is not however, a movie that aims to solve any problems, but I didn't expect it to do so. I was satisfied with the effort to talk about these things, examining them from many different points of view.
The character of Marty seems, to some degree to be a stand in for McDonagh. He watches everything unfold as an outsider, to his own detriment sometimes, as this detachment doesn't do his relationship with his girlfriend any favors. I would resist the urge to view the character as too autobiographical though, since McDonagh is clearly aware that he's telling a story and must keep it entertaining. Marty is obviously successful at his screenwriting trade, enough that he can sell a script based on nothing but the title. The fact that the title is "Seven Psychopaths," is it's own statement. Clearly that's a movie everyone wants to see, unfortunately for Marty, he doesn't have the heart for it anymore. He'd rather write about peace and love, but the pacifist Buddhist character he has in mind won't fit into his story.
More than anything else, the film centers on the friendship between Marty and Billy. Billy ends up being the most prominent psychopath in the story, but that doesn't call his sense of friendship into question. Billy is a fan of "Seven Psychopaths" and wants to see it done the way he imagines, with lots of shooting and an unbelievable showdown. This makes sense, as Billy has a secret life, seemingly designed to be a good part of Marty's story. His enthusiasm for Marty's project leads him to put his own, and everyone around him in danger. Whether he's a textbook psychopath or not is debatable, since despite his strange and reckless behavior he does have a very real devotion to Marty, most evidenced by his constant encouragement for Marty to quit drinking. Sam Rockwell is perfect in the role, coming across as both likable and deranged, and sometimes both at once, depending on the situation.
Christopher Walken's presence is also very large in this film. His Hans is an interesting foil for Billy Bickle. We learn that he once leaned towards the psychotic side himself. Marty tells the story about the Quaker who avenged his daughter by stalking a man until he killed himself and Hans reveals a scar across his neck. Unlike Billy though, Hans isn't sure anymore that that was the right thing to do. He reveals to his wife that he isn't sure of a lot of things, including heaven and hell. He quotes Gandhi's "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." which Marty agrees with, and Billy insists is wrong. After taking some peyote in the desert, he has a vision of his now dead wife, "in a grey place" with a bullet hole still in her head, making him doubt his beliefs even more. He leaves Marty and Billy and walks into town. Running into Charlie's men, he's told to put his hands up, as they have guns. "No." he replies confounding them. Those are the rules after all, the man with the gun says "hands up," and you put them up. Hans, however is done with those rules and his refusal makes it their dilemma to solve, not his. He does manage to leave a possible solution for Marty's Vietnamese priest storyline, suggesting that the whole hotel room scene was in the imagination of a monk preparing to immolate himself. As he's urged by those around him not to do it, as "it won't help," the monk only replies "It might." before lighting a match.
The monk's story is the first glimpse that Marty has of making the movie with the ending he wants, violence subverted into a hopeful act, which may or may not make any difference, except to keep the conversation open. While "Seven Psychopaths" has a lot of fun poking at all the conventions of psychopath movies, including Marty's sparse and badly written female characters, and the hypocrisy of studios approving the killing of those same female characters, while refusing to suggest violence towards a pet. At one point, Marty tells Charlie that he "doesn't believe in guns." Woody Harrelson's Charlie, laughs and says "They're not leprechauns." an amusing conversation which seems to highlight McDonagh's insistence that like it or not, believe it or not, the guns are there, and when they shoot bullets, people get hurt and bad things happen. Charlie and Billy embrace this fact, but Marty and Hans are just tired of it. In another exchange Charlie and Marty discuss the situation and Charlie tells Marty to cheer up, pointing out "I've lost five of my friends, you only lost two." pointing back to the earlier Gandhi quote from a different angle.
The other psychopath of note, is Tom Waits as Zacariah, the tragicomic ex serial killer-killer who lost his true love when he lost his stomach for killing. While he is something of a peripheral figure, his stories parallel to that of Hans reinforces the idea of regret as the logical consequence of violence. Of course. it's also just a lot of fun watching Tom Waits telling absurd murder stories with the style that only he can bring. Woody Harrelson is perfect as the cold blooded mob boss with his own sensibilities. Colin Ferrell is perfect as the center of it all, and manages to remain detached even as he's prodded to take action.
"Seven Psychopaths" is a movie about a movie. I don't fault it for not presenting any solutions, since it never pretends to be anything but a dark comedy, and succeeded at making me laugh quite often. McDonagh seems to enjoy the climactic shoot out as much as anyone, but at the same time asks why it always has to go that way. I don't see this as a contradiction, as much as the way a conversation works, and it should be obvious to anyone that conversation is the most important element at work here. Throughout the conversation, McDonagh does insist on one thing though, that the bullets don't just disappear, each one has consequences. Even a flare gun is there for a reason.
I was quite happy to consider all the points brought up in the film, without expecting McDonagh to put the problematic questions to bed. He doesn't claim to have a solution to our attraction to violence and violent movies, and neither does he deny his own interest in this tug of war between possible endings. Certainly the reality of guns and gun violence have been on the minds of many lately and we could benefit from more conversation, and movies that wonder why people can't just go into the desert and talk things out. The quick answer is an easy one, that movie wouldn't make any money. But to go a step further and ask why that is, is much tougher. Even the monk didn't know, but he did something with the question, because "It might" make a difference. If everyone waits to speak until they've solved these problems, there won't be much talking at all. I appreciate that McDonagh trusts his audience to do their own thinking, while keeping an interesting conversation going. It's especially easy to follow along with such a smart script, and fantastic actors batting these ideas around.