Seven Psychopaths, the latest film by In Bruges director Martin McDonagh, is a hilariously wacky, gleefully over-the-top and unabashedly gory meta-fest with enough plot twists to make M. Night Shyamalan’s head spin.
In just under two hours, Seven Psychopaths bounces from self-referential reflections on the art of screen writing, to the raging fits of a Shih Tzu-loving mobster, to heartfelt conversations between best friends, to ridiculously bloody shoot-outs in a Californian desert. Tom Waits even makes a cameo as a lovelorn killer with a penchant for bunnies and a Dexter-esque sense of criminal justice.
Basically, Seven Psychopaths is one weird movie. So it might not come as a surprise to learn that Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, who play two of the film’s titular characters, are among Seven Psychopath’s roster of big name stars. Between them, the actors have amassed a considerable repertoire of oddball roles: a sex addict, an alien, a Charlie’s Angels villain (Rockwell), a headless horseman, an unhinged teacher and a husband to John Travolta (Walken). Roger Ebert even went so far as to say that Rockwell “seems to have become the latter-day version of Christopher Walken…When you need him, he’s your go-to guy for weirdness.”
But when Walken and Rockwell met with a small group of journalists during the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss their roles in Seven Psychopaths, they were quick to dismiss this perception of their work.
“It’s great, but it’s a funny thing,” Rockwell said of Ebert’s comment. “People have said that I’m quirky, or that Chris is quirky or eccentric. I think a lot of good actors are eccentric… When I think of Chris, I think of The Deer Hunter and The Dead Zone, and those actually are very dark leading men, anti-heroes like Hamlet… To me that’s not so much eccentric or quirky, it’s just darker.”
“I’ve been [acting] since I was five years old,” Walken added. “I was in a sense raised by musical comedy people: gypsies, comics. And there [are] very few actors who … come from that kind of background. It makes you like almost from another country. It makes you foreign.
“I think that in movies, that strangeness almost easily translates into menacing, or malevolent. It’s the Other. If it’s strange, it’s probably a little bit dangerous, which of course is not necessarily so.”
Perhaps, then, the two actors were drawn to Seven Psychopaths because there is more to the film’s characters than their wacky — and often absurdly violent — antics. Walken and Rockwell play Hans and Billy, leaders of a dognapping ring who return the dogs they have stolen and collect reward money from the pooches’ grateful owners. But Hans uses the money to pay his wife’s hospital bill, and the gun-happy Billy is devoted to his best friend, played by Colin Firth. Even Woody Harrelson’s mobster turns to mush when he finds out that Hans and Billy have nabbed his beloved Shih Tzu.
“[Seven Psychopaths] is a comedy,” Rockwell said, when asked whether he sees his character as a good guy or a bad guy. “You know, [our characters] are not bad guys at all.”
“Somebody said that the violence is kind of Wiley Coyote, Roadrunner violence,” Walken added. “I think that’s kind of true. You know, it’s a certain kind of … cartoon violence.”
Walken and Rockwell were familiar with McDonagh’s particular brand of black comedy before they began working with the director on Seven Psychopaths. In 2010, both actors starred in a Broadway production of A Behanding in Spokane, one of McDonagh’s plays, in which the main character has been in obsessive pursuit of his missing hand for 27 years.
But when it came to Seven Psychopaths, the actors were drawn not only to the film’s twisted sense of humour, but also to the unpredictable nature of its script.
“[McDonagh] writes a wonderful dialogue,” Walken said during the interview. “And so unexpected.”
Seven Psychopaths certainly has its fair share of plot twists, and McDonagh’s appreciation for the unpredictable seems to have shaped his directorial style. Walken and Rockwell told the group of journalists that the director incorporated the cast’s innovations into the film (a few of Seven Psychopath’s best lines, which I won’t spoil here, were apparently improvised) and gave the actors some freedom in shaping their characters. And according to Walken and Rockwell, this is exactly the approach that a good director should take.
“You’re a bit like kids and you’re in a sandbox, and you’re making it up,” Walken said of acting on a film set. “And the good director is really kind of like a lifeguard. He sits on a big, high chair and he’s got all these crazy kids in the sand box, and they’re playing. And every once in a while, one of them slips and falls out of the sandbox… And the good director just picks him up and puts him back inside.”
“And the bad director yells at them for falling off the slide,” Rockwell added with a laugh.
“But definitely, on a good movie set, there is that aspect to it,” Walken continued. “It’s a little bit wild.”