Of all the dozens of Quentin Tarantino imitators to spring up since Pulp Fiction’s ass-backward 1994 cultural revolution, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh is the one to trade a serious reputation for trendy success. McDonagh’s stage plays limn the awkward, self-destructive tendencies of a marginalized group (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmore, A Behanding in Spokane). But McDonagh’s transition to movies—as with In Bruges and the new Seven Psychopaths—displays a pathetic inclination toward QT’s self-satisfied cleverness rather than ethnic revelation.
McDonagh’s snark is the opposite of inspiration. That’s the obstacle facing Irish screenwriter Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) going through writer’s block in Hollywood; he falls into Los Angeles’ indolent criminal underclass. His best friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), obsessed with movie bravado, is in the dog-napping racket with an old reprobate, Hans (Christopher Walken). They’re pursued by a gangster (Woody Harrelson) who goes into a killing rage to recover his stolen shih tzu.
Not even a bit of this is cute. We’ve been through it before: in Pulp Fiction, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Get Shorty, Doc Hollywood. It’s never good and always dishonest; neglecting Hollywood’s true pathos (see Steven Peros’ Footprints to get past the movieland genre’s superficial glamour for insight into the realities of American class—the sense of cultural panic that distinguishes Nathanel West from James M. Cain). But McDonagh’s hipster envy compromises his insight into Marty’s screenwriter’s folly—the juvenile fascination with brutality that is nourished by Hollywood’s unconscionable, sophomoric cleverness; the legacy that Tarantino inherited and the revolution he launched.
It took Guy Ritchie several movies before he came out of Tarantino’s shadow to do the terrific, exhilarating Rocknrolla. Ritchie finally found his own “voice” when he rooted the sexualized bravado of macho fantasy in the traditions that connect the social criticism of British literature and British punk music.
McDonagh’s rewind of Hollywood pulp lacks the cultural specificity of his plays. Farrell gives it his all, finding depths of bewilderment in the alienation of a social, sexual and moral immigrant. And Rockwell portrays his American doppelganger with startling brio, giving Billy Bickle (a travesty of DeNiro’s Travis Bickle) the soul of a true Tarantino lunatic rather than a film-buff caricature. Walken, Harrelson and Tom Waits contribute to a kind of psychological syllogism; each man a variation on woebegone masculine mischief. Their good performances credit McDonagh’s theater-based expertise with actors and how they create the illusion of character (as in the case of Linda Bright Clay as Myra, Han’s wife—a felt person in only a few minutes of screen time, whereas QT’s The Bonnie Situation neglected its black female character).
Some of McDonagh’s tangents—particularly backstory subplots—go deeper into racial nightmares and pathos than Tarantino, who only plays wigger-ish games with America’s violent history. Perhaps on home turf, McDonagh might have gotten at some ethnic and existential essence and fulfilled his interest in exploring ghosts that haunt Irish machismo. Instead, as with In Bruges, he seems distracted by movie cleverness that isn’t clever at all.
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