The Words on the Page

Seven Psychopaths

June 13, 2017

 

Seven Psychopaths

by Martin McDonagh

Unspecified Draft - No Year

Comedy, 115 pages

 

"Government? 'A job that ain't just stealing from folks.'  Government?" - Hans

 

Seven Psychopaths, which McDonagh both wrote and directed, is a twisty black comedy where nothing's as it seems. Misdirections start early as, in the opening action, we're told, "At some point in their conversation, an inconsequential FIGURE from the distant background slowly approaches." However, three pages later, (originally a playwright, McDonagh is partial to long scenes)  "the background FIGURE reaches the men and shoots both their fucking heads off." I knew right away that I couldn't fully "trust" McDonagh and that he was going to play with my emotions and expectations throughout the script.

 

Last week I read McDonagh's play A Behanding in Spokane, and I was interested in exploring similarities between the two pieces. Once again there was a nefarious pair, this time mob members, that was at odds with each other, and their banter proved humorous. There was also a moment when a man with a gun shot near, but not at, someone to scare the person, and most amusing to me, a story about a killer who lost a hand (this time due to its being doused in acid).

 

Like most of McDonagh's work, a lot of the humor grew from juxtaposition. Some was in dialogue:

 

Billy: I think we should try and find this Jack O' Diamonds guy and get him to join forces with us, and we could take on all the bad guys, like, maybe in a desert or somewhere.

Marty: Uh-huh? And what do you think we should do in real life?

 

Other times it grew from simply upending expectations, like when a mafia boss showed up somewhere alone and unarmed because he had been told to show up alone and unarmed or when Marty asked, "How much more fucked up can my life get today?" seconds before the mob burst through his door.

 

McDonagh's voice was present throughout the screenplay, but he altered his style to fit the more visual medium. While characters still tell stories, a hallmark of his, voice over and flashbacks were used so we could see the action instead of simply hearing about it. Sometimes this was used for extremely bloody, grisly scenes, but, because they were stories being told, McDonagh injected humor through the words used. For example:

 

Zachariah: We got the idea to go around the country killing people who go around the country killing people. 'Serial Killer Killing' I guess nowadays it'd be called.

 

The one place where visuals weren't used was on pages 55-56 when Marty was reading Billy's diary. Although we are being let into Billy's thoughts, the scene feels static - just someone flipping through the pages of a book while its contents are revealed in voice over. I'm curious as to how it worked in the completed film as it slowed down my read.

 

Finally, the screenplay operated on a rather meta level. In Seven Psychopaths, the protagonist, Marty, is a screenwriter who is writing a script called - you guessed it - Seven Psychopaths. The characters are essentially living the story while also telling it and, by the end of the film, Marty, Billy, and Hans are all working on the screenplay. The script even comments on itself, pointing out that its female characters are one-dimensional and deserve better.

 

McDonagh successfully translated his signature story-filled, black comedy style to film, and, for the most part, I think the movie would be entertaining to watch. There are a lot of characters and small subplots, but they all work together to tell a coherent story.

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Writing for film, television, and the stage is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult - and most rewarding - art forms. The language needs to be visual and evocative as each script must achieve two important tasks...
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