Two announcements about Pop Cultural Studies:
- This is the first post in a new series I’m starting, called “Underrated” (unless I think of a better title). As you might expect, it’s going to be about movies/television/media that I think tends to be a little underappreciated.
- THIS IS POP CULTURAL STUDIES’ 150TH POST! How ’bout that! I started this blog at the end of July of 2015, and while posts were spotty in the first few months, starting in 2015 I’ve had about one post a week. So here we are. Now’s as good a time to thank my readers – so, if you’re taking the time to read this, thank you very much!
Without further ado, let’s go into my first post of “Underrated.”
Martin McDonough is coming off a tremendous success with his third and most recent film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture (and most people seemed to think that it was going to win Best Picture too). His first movie was the much acclaimed black comedy In Bruges. In Bruges tells the story of two Irish hitmen after a botched murder, as they are sent to lay low in the Belgian city of Bruges.
Both these movies are highly acclaimed and beloved, but between them is the lesser-known, balls-to-the-walls-nuts, black-comedy Seven Psychopaths.
More Meta than Deadpool
The lead role in Seven Psychopaths is Colin Farrell’s character, a screenwriter struggling with writer’s block while trying to come up with ideas for his new screenplay. The character’s name? Marty, like writer-director Martin McDonough. His nationality? Irish, like writer-director Martin McDonough. The screenplay he’s trying to write? A little picture called Seven Psychopaths.
And this movie specializes in poking fun at itself. In critiquing Marty’s screenplay, Walken’s character Hans points out that Marty is very bad at writing female characters, and that most of them die or disappear before saying anything of note – and no female character has any significant amount of screen time. This movie is so quirky and weird that it’s like watching a crazy cross between Adaptation and Fight Club. Who would hear that description and not want to watch that immediately?
Intertextuality with Taxi Driver
I didn’t love Taxi Driver when I first saw it, and I haven’t seen it since. I just have difficulty grasping why people seem to consider it one of the best movies of the 1970s or one of Scorsese’s best. I don’t usually care for people who watch certain movies or talk about video games and say “this glorifies violence,” but sometimes I feel like Taxi Driver glorifies violence. (I’m probably due for a rewatch of it soon.) The movie just seems to get too close to saying “look, Travis Bickle is a cool, gunslinging urban vigilante,” while not doing enough to condemn his rush to violence. (Again, it’s been a few years since I saw Taxi Driver, and if you enjoy it and feel as though I’m being too harsh, please let me know.)
Seven Psychopaths, on the other hand actively acknowledges its relationship with movie violence in a scene where Marty talks about how he wants his movie to end:
“The first half should be a perfect setup for an out-and-out revenge flick. Violence. Guns. All the usual bullshit. And then… The lead characters should just walk away. They should just drive off into the desert and pitch a tent somewhere and just talk for the rest of the frigging movie. No shoot-outs, no pay-offs. Just human beings talking.”
And yes, this movie does have its fair share of violence, but at the center of it is a desire for peace. The one character who doesn’t have any real desire for peace is Sam Rockwell’s Billy Bickle – which is where the Taxi Driver connection comes in.
Billy Bickle shares a last name with Robert De Niro’s Taxi Driver character Travis Bickle. One might think that the connection was incidental, but the reference is made overt when Billy talks to himself in the mirror, like De Niro’s famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene in Taxi Driver.
And again, there’s a point to referencing Taxi Driver; easy audience associations. Seven Psychopaths uses audience familiarity with Taxi Driver to establish a main character as someone who has violent tendencies to the point of psychopathy. It’s a straightforward and even easy association for the audience to make.
The way Billy Bickle’s Taxi Driver-style eccentricities clash with the movie’s desire for peace provides a meaningful commentary on movie violence and its real-world counterpart.
Christopher Walken’s Best Performance?
The movie has an excellent cast. Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell probably have the most screentime. Woody Harrelson gives a funny, intimidating, and slightly heartfelt performance as a mob boss doing everything he can to get his dog back. (Think about how a similar premise makes us root for John Wick.) But the real show-stealer is definitely Christopher Walken as Hans.
In one of the movie’s funniest moments, he refuses to put his hands up at gunpoint:
Paulo: Put your hands up!
Hans: [indifferent] No.
Hans: I said no.
Paulo: Why not?
Hans: Because I don’t want to.
Paulo: But I’ve got a gun!
Hans: I don’t care.
Paulo: [Exasperated] That doesn’t make any sense!
Hans: [Chuckling] Too bad!
But we also get to see him convey love, sorrow, humor, mournful, earnest, and just about everything in between. And in one of the movie’s last scenes, he explains his idea for an ending to Marty’s screenplay.
(This video has spoilers.)
And there are so many things I love about this scene. The way Walken whispers “it might,” when his voice is so hoarse with emotion. How he looks across the landscape, searching for some kind of understanding. But most of all, the way he eventually takes a moment that is emotional and concludes it by making you laugh with his hilariously misguided “I think they prefer to be called homos,” remark. The thing is, most actors wouldn’t be able to handle a joke like that at the end of a highly emotional monologue without changing the tone of the scene. People constantly criticize Marvel movies for using humor in dramatic situations, but here’s one moment where that really works – again, because of Christopher Walken.
I don’t know. Now is where I have to admit that I’ve never seen The Deer Hunter. I’m sure he’s great in that. I’ll have to make a point of watching it.
There are plenty of things I could say about this movie. I’ve barely talked about the snappy and hilarious dialogue, and Billy’s monologue where he reads his version of the Seven Psychopaths screenplay is so absurd and meta that it almost deserves a post in its own right.
Seven Psychopaths is a fun, witty, and brash black comedy that offers hilarious and insightful meta-commentary on movies and movie violence. An all-star cast and a shining script make this movie a triumph. Don’t be surprised if in 10 years this movie is a cult classic.