Postmodern writing is one of those contentious arenas that tends to find itself with educated artists and which has a poor record of literary success. Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s latest effort, Seven Psychopaths, starring Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell, however, is one of those rare postmodern films that managed to make it into the mainstream and that manages to survive the traps a genre that by its convention disrupts the more traditional sense of storytelling. The film’s defining postmodern characteristic is its continual demonstration to the audience that they are indeed watching a movie; but, not stopping there, the film also has its mix of self-referencing, layers of imitation, and the placement of narrative (story, language) as the centre of everything.
What makes Seven Psychopaths relevant is its desire to break away from the typical violent story. Marty, the screenwriter whose words the movie builds up around, repeatedly criticizes the overdone shoot-‘em-up film all while being trapped in that very kind of violence.
This last point is key to McDonagh’s script: there is a big difference in meaning between having a film that from the outset is an introspective “French” film (as Billy calls Marty’s idea of a movie without violence) compared to a violent film in which the main character yearns for an escape from violent stories. In the latter case, we have a person or society that is embedded in an ideological framework and cannot quite know what an alternative would be like; he or it can only desire something else poorly defined, something nascent and unarticulated. And this new kind of story is precisely what Marty cannot find the words for. In contrast, Billy the psychopath does have words and attempts to write Marty’s story for him, offering a ridiculous story of ultra-violence.
In this way the film harmonizes with our present situation in the Western world in which a groundswell of people crave peace while being trapped in a narrative – a broader political, corporate structure – of violence and exploitation. The symbolism of Billy the psychopath having burned and wrecked the American flag is not lost, either. For this, Seven Psychopaths is a culturally relevant film that manages to speak of and to the zeitgeist: that is, we want a different story.
For this, an excellent cast, plenty of chuckles, and Abbie Cornish in a wet t-shirt in slow motion, Seven Psychopaths is worth the watch.