Seven Psychopaths: No Steps Forward, All Steps Back

I’ve spent the past few weeks really going to town on a backlog of films that I had at some point well before now intended to have seen, but did not because of a plethora of reasons too varied and benign to summarize here. Life happens, intentions slip away from you. That’s the meat of it. But I’m making progress now, and a bunch of films previously unseen by me are now being seen by me. And one of these films was Seven Psychopaths, the fourth feature from writer/director Martin McDonagh (who had previously given us the excellent In Bruges). I had intended to see this in the theater, but that ended up not coming to pass – and at least part of that was due to an off-putting promotional poster collection that characterized one of only two female principal cast members as “the passive-aggressive girlfriend”:

See: no. 5

See: no. 5

It’s bad enough that this type of female character actually exists in cinema to an almost frightening degree already; perpetuating it and reducing it down to a snapshot and text blurb whilst trying to evoke some vaguely hip atmosphere is, frankly, a little weird. Yes, in the context of the film, it’s accurate, insofar as Abbie Cornish does indeed play the passive-aggressive girlfriend in much the same way as Tom Waits plays “the one with the rabbit.” But this isn’t an issue of misrepresentation – it’s an issue of vision; in this case, a depressingly limited one that’s trying to sell itself to us on the merits of its own shortcomings.

Bad poster ensemble or not, though, I did end up giving Seven Psychopaths a go on DVD. Hell, for all I know, the marketing department could’ve just blundered that idea out into the ether, and it could have no tether to the reality of the movie. I didn’t think this probable, but it certainly was possible. In the end, though, poor Abbie’s one-shot proved to be as spot on as all the others. I half-expected that. But what I didn’t expect was for Seven Psychopaths to reveal a deep, important truth to us that it would only end up invalidating beyond recognition before its runtime ran out.

I should pause for a moment here and explain that I am certainly no expert on the issue of gender disparity between women and men in cinema – and to that end, I feel a little uncomfortable talking about it in detail, as I don’t feel I can do the topic the justice that it deserves. So perhaps the best thing for me to do at this point is to say that if you need just a little primer/reminder about how deep this disparity is, please check out this post from the New York Film Academy. That’s a good place to start.

So with that in mind, how does this tie into Seven Psycopaths? I mean, besides the poster bullshit? Well first, it should be noted that the film is metafiction; Colin Farrell plays Marty Faranan (*cough*samefirstnameasthewriterdirectorIRL*cough*), a screenwriter who’s penning a screenplay entitled “Seven Psychopaths” within the film of Seven Psychopaths. Now the first half of the film features a trio female characters who suffer, at minimum, degradation, and at worst, death. The most depressing example to cite here would be Gabourey Sidibe’s character, a dog walker for Charlie Costello (played by Woody Harrelson). I had to go to Wikipedia to learn that the character Gabourey plays is named Sharice. I had to do this because she is never *not* referred to as “[a/the] fat black chick” in the single scene she’s in – even when mentioned by name, as Sharice, some variant of that statement above appends it.

Along with this, we get Myra, a cancer patient (and the wife of Christopher Walken’s character, Hans Kieslowski) who’s shot in the head whilst in the hospital; Angela (Charlie’s girlfriend, but notably not the passive-aggressive one [wife, girlfriend, girlfriend – see a pattern here?]), who’s shot in the gut by Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell, who, in a not-so-fast twist plays not one but two of the titular psychopaths); and finally, an unnamed prostitute (played by Christine Marzano) who first appears alongside a similarly unnamed priest from Vietnam – a psychopath who’s story Marty just can’t seem to figure out.

Sadly, most of this stuff is par for the course. However, midway through the film, something unexpected happens; Hans is going over Marty’s screenplay, while they’re hiding out in the desert, and this exchange takes place:

Hans: Marty, I’ve been reading your movie. Your women characters are awful. None of them have anything to say for themselves. And most of them get either shot or stabbed to death within five minutes. And the ones that don’t probably will later on.

Marty: Well, it’s a hard world for women. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.

Hans: Yeah, it’s a hard world for women, but most of the ones I know can string a sentence together.

I perked up at this. Here we have a character in the movie critiquing the movie’s treatment of its female characters over the past hour and change. The film is forcing us to confront this, whether or not the audience was aware of how marginalized the women characters were up until this point or not. I had assumed (silly me) that these issues would be addressed and corrected in the latter half of the movie – I mean, why start that dialogue at all if you’re not going to do anything about it? It’s time wasted – time that could be spent acting suave and shooting people.

As it happens, Seven Psychopaths *does* embark upon a bit of a course-correct for one of its female characters – and then proceeds to completely, absolutely fuck it up.

We revisit the priest from Vietnam. His story has changed quite significantly, and so has the unnamed prostitute who accompanies him. To begin, she’s now clothed in a red dress (previously, she was topless for the sake of being topless). Also, she can now speak Vietnamese (which she learned at Yale; again, previously, she remarked to the priest: “Vietnam? Didn’t we fight a war with you or something?” – also, she makes a point to say that she loves reading Noam Chomsky, just in case you didn’t gather that she’s in possession of some intellect now). And the story goes from there. The priest drags her (with dynamite strapped around her) to a conference about the Vietnam conflict, and he pushes her into the stunned crowd, and pours gasoline around her, and holds up a match. And in a whisper, she speaks to him a phrase in Vietnamese, one she had said to him previously when the two were alone. We are given a moment to take this in.

And then…and then we see that this is all a hallucination, a vision. The priest is actually *in* Vietnam, clothed in the robes of his Buddhist order, preparing to immolate himself as protest against the war. None of what we had previously seen is real. It’s all imagined – including the entire revision of the prostitute we had just watched.

So to recap, the film makes one attempt – one – to address the very real and far-reaching critique that Chris Walkens’ Hans had offered up to us midway through the movie, about the very movie we’re watching. The character that gets this redux isn’t named at all during the movie, is still a prostitute (Christine Marzano is quite bluntly listed as playing “Hooker” in the film’s credits). And she’s *still* put in a position where she’s going to be killed, just like Myra and Angela before her. But hey, she’s got a dress and some smarts now, so that’s something – at least until that’s taken away, too. Ultimately, this character is still just a body to be disposed of, and the dignity and intelligence she possesses in the second go-around comes at the expense of her, you know, actually being a real person. That’s a net loss if ever I saw one.

And of course there’s more: when the priest is preparing to immolate himself in Vietnam, he sees this same woman, red dress and all, in the crowd before him. She’s silent. Her mouth’s agape. Whatever she was or had, it wasn’t even hers to begin with; it was merely projections of the priest.

This “change” isn’t noteworthy; if anything, it’s counter-productive. Being shown what’s typical, and then commenting on how shitty that typicality is, and to then make shaky, cosmetic “changes” that don’t actually amount to anything once everything’s said and done is pretty detestable. I got the feeling watching this sequence unfold that Seven Psychopaths thought it was doing a Great Thing here. And there’s nothing I dislike more than when something pats itself on the back undeservedly.

There’s a metal band named Discordance Axis, and they once wrote a slow, repetitive, pounding song, the lyrics of which are completely unintelligible – and that song goes by the very apt name of A Leaden Stride To Nowhere. That’s exactly the type of motion Seven Psychopaths generates.

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