Seven Psychopaths is a movie so devilishly well-crafted that it's nearly consumed by its own brilliance. The writer-director, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), is a master of nasty laughs, and he keeps them coming…and coming. There's barely time to catch your breath. If movies could pick their own flaws, though, this would be the one to go for.
Colin Farrell is Marty, a blocked writer who's stuck on his latest screenplay. He has a title—Seven Psychopaths—but the rest won't come. Marty's just a regular guy; what does he know about lunatics? His best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), would like to help, but, being completely nuts, he's a dubious source of counsel. Billy kidnaps dogs for a living, lifting them from a local park and turning them over to his partner, a coot named Hans (Christopher Walken), to return to their heartbroken owners for cash rewards (which Hans accepts with a carefully calibrated reluctance). Billy is determined to be of assistance with Marty's screenplay, however, so he places a newspaper ad: "Calling All Psychopaths." Unfortunately, this draws just one response, from a semiretired maniac named Zachariah (Tom Waits), who turns up in person with a pet rabbit.
Soon a more formidable nutjob arrives on the scene. Billy and Hans have unknowingly kidnapped a Shih Tzu that belongs to a vicious gangster named Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Charlie is both heartbroken and enraged. He'll do anything to get his mini-mutt back—and he'll definitely deal in a most unpleasant way with whoever took it. (Gabourey Sidibe, as the walker who lost the dog, is the first to feel the lash of his wrath.) Presumably, Billy and Hans could just give the dog back, but as Billy points out, with his customary bent logic, "That defeats the purpose of the kidnapping."
Pretty soon, psychopaths abound, among them an avenging Quaker (Harry Dean Stanton) and a Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen) who's still incensed about the Vietnam War. ("It's not over!" he tells a hooker in his hotel room.) There's also a masked assassin called the Jack of Diamonds killer, who leaves playing cards at the scenes of his rubouts. Billy continues putting in his two cents about Marty's screenplay (maybe change the title to Seven Lesbians?) and schooling his friend in the iron rules of crime cinema. ("You can't let the animals die," he says, "only the women"—and indeed, several women do.) We see that Marty is writing the picture we're watching; we wonder where it's going, and we wonder if he knows. When he decides to try an artier approach to this bullets-and-broads tale ("No shooting, just people talking"), Billy fears he's losing the thread: "What, are we making a French movie?"
It's a little odd to find an artist of McDonagh's distinctive talents channeling the manic gab of Pulp Fiction at this late date, although it has to be said it's a style not far from his own. McDonagh is a virtuoso of digression, always up for a narrative side trip to explore the surreal backstories of his twisted characters. He revels in bloody comic violence, and the actors are entirely in tune with his savage sensibility. Rockwell's Billy is a figure of soaring eccentricity, and Walken (who starred with Rockwell in McDonagh's A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway) provides an ostinato of deadpan weirdness (and sometimes warmth) that keeps the story from winging off into the ether. As for Farrell, he's perfectly cast as…us. He can't believe all the craziness that keeps boiling up around him. The difference is, he's complaining about it. We're not.
This movie really did creep me out, bless its scabby little head. Sinister is a deft assemblage of genre readymades—haunted house, slasher, found-footage—bound together in an atmosphere of bleak portents that sometimes recalls The Shining, among other, admittedly better, films. What sets it apart from less-enterprising fright flicks is its disturbing imagery. Some of this can be glimpsed in the trailer: the eerie sight of four bound and hooded figures hanging limply from an improvised backyard gallows; the squirming terror of another group of people, tied down on poolside recliners, as they're pulled by ropes into the water to drown. I won't go into the gardening horror (yikes!), but you get the idea—this stuff stays with you.
Since any movie of this sort is by definition implausible, it helps to have a star who can anchor the awful proceedings in an appealing, down-to-earth style. Ethan Hawke—the beleaguered idealist of Training Day, the personable swain of Before Sunset and Before Sunrise—is just the man for the job. Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer whose one bestseller is 10 years behind him. Desperate for another hit, Oswalt has found a promising new case to write about—the unsolved lynching of an innocuous family in small-town Pennsylvania. (An added attraction: one of the dead family's children, little Stephanie, has never been found.) Oswalt's wife (Juliet Rylance) and their two kids (Clare Foley and Michael Hall D'Addario) aren't thrilled about being relocated to the woodsy environs of this crime. But imagine how they'd feel if Oswalt revealed that he has actually moved them into the very house where the murders were committed.
Settling into this new home, Oswalt discovers something strange in the attic—a box of old Super-8 films and a little projector on which to run them. Threading in one film, he sees a happy family—mom, dad, three children—doing happy things in their back yard. Then there's a cut—to the four bodies hanging from a tree. "Who made this film?" Oswalt wonders. And "where's Stephanie?"
The other films in the box are similarly unnerving. Each was made in a different town, over the course of some 40 years. Each records the grisly demise of another family, and each canister is labeled with a sick- jokey title. (The film called "Sleepy Time" depicts a late-night domestic attack suggesting that director and cowriter Scott Derrickson has watched Michael Mann's 1986 Manhunter on more than one occasion.)
The local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) is aggressively displeased that Oswalt has come to town to make his cops look bad. But one of the sheriff's deputies turns out to be a true-crime buff, and he agrees to help Oswalt track down all the murders depicted in the films, which Oswalt has transferred to his computer for freeze-frame viewing. (Who's that masked figure in the bushes?) Things grow ever-eerier, along with Christopher Young's unsettling electro-murk score. At one point, Vincent D'Onofrio puts in an uncredited appearance as a sort of Professor of Strange Things to relay information about the cult of an ancient child-eating deity—all right!
Unfortunately, this turn toward the otherworldly is muddled by suggestions that Oswalt—who has taken to drinking heavily—might be cracking up, and, like Kubrick's Jack Torrance, simply imagining all the weird noises and spectral manifestations by which he thinks he's beset. (Maybe it would help if he turned the lights on during his late-night house-prowls.) But as the number of things that don't add up increases, the horror remains, and the jolts keep coming, right up to the ghastly conclusion. Which is killer, by the way.