I would want to live inside the movie “Seven Psychopaths,” if it wasn’t almost certain I’d get my head blown off at some point.
In the opening scene of the movie, which opens today, two mobsters played by Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlberg are having a casual, comic conversation about their profession, which today involves offing a young female. They are like Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield from “Pulp Fiction,” reincarnated in another life and another movie. We assume we’ll be spending a lot of time with these fellows over the next two hours. Then a man in a ski mask gradually advances toward them from the back of the frame, implants bullets in their heads and drops two jack-of-hearts playing cards – his serial-killer trademark – on the bleeding, freshly minted corpses.
This is just one of the many surprises – and one of the many psychopaths – in this deliriously original film, destined to become a cult classic. It’s written by Martin McDonagh, whose work for the stage ranges from high-art Tony winners to the theater equivalent of grisly B-pictures. As its title, and that shocking first scene, establishes, “Seven Psychopaths” fits firmly into the latter category. The brutality in the film is extreme and unrelenting, from exploding heads and immolation to chain saw massacres and bullet operas. And it’s all absolutely hilarious, with humor as black as the inside of a coffin and as cerebral as a New Yorker article.
The characters arecharactersin the most graphic-novel kind of way: There’s a professional dognapper (Christopher Walken) who pilfers pampered pooches and then returns them to their owners for sizable rewards; the leader of a crime syndicate (Woody Harrelson) who goes on a ballistic rampage when his beloved shih tzu is “borrowed;” a serial killer ofotherserial killers (Tom Waits, creepy as ever), who walks around with a live rabbit; a Viet Cong soldier who has never gotten over the war (Long Nguyen); and a psychotic Quaker (Harry Dean Stanton, or so we think) avenging his daughter’s murder by eternally stalking the killer.
All of these psychos are, and aren’t, the product of Hollywood screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) and his best friend and eventual writing partner Billy (Sam Rockwell), whose inspiration from real-life psychopaths to bolster a screenplay titled “Seven Psychopaths” blurs the boundary between art and life.
Marty’s name conjures the movie’s own creator, Martin McDonagh, and we never forgot that this movie’s real subject is the artifice of cinematic creation. The very first image we see in the film, before the gun-down of Pitt and Stuhlberg, is the Hollywood sign, looming godlike over everything that follows. Though “Seven Psychopaths” is imbued with an invigorating rush of creativity – writers will want to scramble to their word processors and hammer out some ideas after they see the film – it’s also a self-reflexive meta experiment in movie detachment. It lays bare all of the tricks and faults inherent in action cinema, from the insulting treatment of female characters to the apparent necessity of an ostentatious, film-ending bloodbath. And despite the comic-book snark and acrid film-industry self-critique, the movie is even poignant at times, and full of head-shaking surprises.
One thing is for sure: It’s almost impossible to take any other action thriller seriously after seeing this one, and McDonagh and his admirers will be laughing all the way to the bank.
“Argo,” which also opens today, deals with the movie business in a more naturalistic way, and it’s no less a masterpiece. We glimpse the famous Hollywood sign here, too, but it’s in tatters; like most of the world, it seems, even the Hollywood dream factory is in disrepair.
The movie is set during the Iranian hostage crisis, opening with a documentary prologue about the chain of political events that led to the infamous siege of the U.S. embassy. As the docudrama unfolds, director Ben Affleck narrows his focus to six American diplomats who escaped the violent protestors for temporary shelter in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Knowing that one step on the outside soil will lead to their deaths, the diplomats’ only hope for survival is a seemingly hare-brained CIA mission launched back in the States by “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck himself, in an unrecognizable beard). Battling a continuous barrage of bureaucratic roadblocks, Mendez finally is able to greenlight his escape mission: He’ll visit Iran as a location scout for a fictional Hollywood movie – based on the completed script “Argo,” a “Star Wars” knock-off set in exotic Middle East locales -- and return with the six hostages, all of them posing as film crew members with extensive fake backgrounds and identities. Essentially, they are forced to become Method actors in the movie of their escape, with countless Iranian revolutionaries sniffing around every corner for them.
This all sounds like a genius fiction; the fact that the events in the film actually happened (with some dramatic license, no doubt) is beyond remarkable. It’s stunning -- proof that sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction.
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio based the movie on an article about the CIA mission, written by Joshuah Bearman after information about the case became declassified in 1997. Terrio’s script is a perfect cocktail of drama, wit and pathos, and an exquisitely chosen cast including Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin bring out every shade of its nuances.
But it’s Affleck’s direction that really sells the material and establishes a new master behind the camera. Every milieu, from the frantic halls of government to the chaotic streets of Tehran to the shambolic sets of Burbank B-movies, is rendered with a precise attention to detail and verisimilitude. The cinematography was painstakingly based on actual video and photography taken from inside the hostage crisis, and it shows. The viewer is plunged into each harried environment, completely invested in its outcome. You won’t want to blink, even through the tears that may eventually sting the corners of your eyes. Affleck did a fine job with a mediocre script in his 2010 release “The Town,” but “Argo” is comparatively transcendent – an intelligent, invisibly directed crowd-pleaser in the tradition of Coppola and early Spielberg.
The film also feels somehow instructive, given the recent Arab Spring, the subsequent implosion of the Middle East and the perennial panic of a nuclear-armed Iran. “Argo” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival 11 days before an armed militia in Libya killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, another example of radical Islamist rage targeted at Americans. The film captures an unfortunate zeitgeist, reminding us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.