In Bruges is one of those movies that you’re supposed to like if you’re a film nerd. Saying you don’t instantly loses you credibility. I guess I just lost credibility. I’m not sure it’s the script so much as Colin Farrell’s acting. I can never understand what the hell the guy’s saying and I don’t think he’s funny. If I need a guy to break girls’ hearts or make women swoon, I’ll hire Farrell. If I want an actor who can deliver jokes, Farrell is somewhere on the bottom of my list. But hey, people love In Bruges and I’m not going to rain on their parade. Even though I just sorta did. Today, Roger takes a look at another of McDonagh’s (the writer of In Bruges) scripts, Seven Psychopaths. If I ranked all the scripts I get requests for, this one is somewhere near the top. People love this guy. Let’s see what Roger thinks.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Black Comedy
Premise: A writer’s life is violently turned upside down when his friends kidnap a Mafioso’s dog.
About: “Seven Psychopaths” is McDonagh’s third film script. It’s his favorite unproduced script. And that’s all he’s gonna say about it. At the age of 27, McDonagh became the first writer since Shakespeare to have four plays performed simultaneously in London. His plays have been nominated for multiple Tony Awards. He won an Oscar for his short, “Six Shooter”. Nominated for Best Original Screenplay Award with “In Bruges”.
Writer: Martin McDonagh.
Details: 116 pages (undated)
The only writer other than Shakespeare to have four plays performed concurrently in London’s West End Theatre District is Martin McDonagh. That’s an almost four-hundred year disparity between quite possibly the world’s greatest writer and a modern day Irish playwright.
One writes in manacled iambic pentameter and the other writes in an idiosyncratic language that champions casual swearing.
Both are writers who tell stories that explore the immemorial facets of honor, love, loss, sorrow, ambition, wrath and madness with jewel-like illumination.
A Shakespearean sonnet might stir the pain that hides in scars by driving a rapier through your heart, but a McDonagh murder ballad will pummel that protective wall you constructed around your soul with the butt of a gun until it creates its own entrance, turning what was once a barrier into a gate.
And that thing you call manliness that is actually a buffer between you and the world will erode in the winds of a howling melancholy and screaming black drama, leaving you with wrists upturned and your veins exposed to the world, laughing all the while.
Now here’s a script that exists on the other side. The side where rules are broken and where the writer’s creativity and skill create a form that, double-fisted, punches and shoots its way through the parameter walls and stretches the tethers of the tenants to the point where they snap, the story refusing to be held in such confines.
The new form might frighten you. It might scare you away. But there’s no need to run. Read it. Don’t know how? Let it show you how. Give it a chance. Like Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” or Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”, McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” is a work that showcases meta-literary pyrotechnics. You learn how to read it as you go along.
But here’s the thing. It’s actually a quiet display that does not get in the way of the story. There are points, especially near the mid-point, where it teeters on the brink, where McDonagh seems to mutter fuck-all while he tight-rope walks between pretentious disaster and pure screenplay brilliance, but then he makes it to the latter side and all you can do as a reader is shake your head in wonder and nod approvingly as you skim back over the pages you just read to see exactly how he made it across.
There’s a danger that comes with playing with the rules. But your reward, if you survive the attempt, is that you may achieve something much more interesting than what would be possible by opting to play safely in the life-guarded screenplay sandbox. There’s a part in this script where it seems like McDonagh is telegraphing the entire third act, but then he reels the story back in and we’re served with something completely compelling, fun, tense, violent and heartbreaking.
If you get to the mid-point and find yourself frustrated, like I did, just keep reading.
I promise that it’s not what you think it is.
Here’s the story. We have our writer Marty, who may or may not be Martin McDonagh. He’s a writer. He’s a bit of an alcoholic. He’s trying to write a screenplay he has entitled “Seven Psychopaths”. Yeah, I know. But hold on. Pay attention.
Marty’s best-friend is Billy Bickle. Billy…well…let’s just say that Billy doesn’t like Marty’s girlfriend, Kaya. Kaya doesn’t like Billy. But it’s okay, because Billy is concerned with being a good friend and he’s not afraid to tell Marty that Kaya is kindof a bitch. He’s looking out for his friend.
At one point we might even get a glimpse at Billy’s diary and learn that he’s made lists on how he can be a better friend to Marty and Hans.
Hans is –-
–hold on. Sorry. I’ll get to Hans in a second.
Did you catch the “Taxi Driver” reference there? Look again. Billy’s name. Billy Bickle.
Billy actually thinks that he’s the son of Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro’s character in Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”. No, he doesn’t think he’s the son of De Niro. He believes he’s the son of the character, Travis Bickle. He thinks Travis Bickle is real.
But it’s not…it’s not something you want to ride into him for. Billy’s a sweet guy and it’s kind of painful to watch Marty get drunk and make fun of him concerning this character trait. It just makes Marty come off as cranky and mean-spirited. And Billy is an awesome friend. I would be honored to have a friend like Billy in my life.
You see, Billy is concerned that Marty is drinking too much and that’s causing problems with work on his script. And he’s not afraid to say it. As burgeoning scriptwriters, we could all use a cheerleader like this on our sides, alcoholic or not.
Now let’s get back to Hans.
Hans is an older guy, closer to sixty than fifty. He’s poor but always neatly dressed. He wears a distinctive cravat that might just be a stylistic fashion choice, or he might be using it to cover up a telling scar. He has a black wife named Myra, a victim of breast cancer who spends her painful days lying in bed at the cancer word.
Hans hasn’t worked in twenty years or so, and you get the sense he’s struggling to pay Myra’s hospital bills. So he’s come up with a dog-napping scheme to help him with his financial woes. Billy helps him out. They steal dogs from people at the local park, hold them in pens and wait for the missing-dog flyers to appear. And since this is a pretty rich area, they are able to score hundreds of dollars in reward money from suddenly ecstatic and wealthy owners.
But one day they make a mistake. They nab a cute, little three-legged shitsu by the name of Bonny that both men grow pretty fond of.
Except there’s already a guy who’s extremely fond of Bonny. Namely, his owner Charlie Costello. See, when we first meet Charlie, he’s at a double funeral for some mafiosos.
That’s something else you should note. Someone has taken it upon themselves to murder members of the mafia, leaving Jack ‘O Diamond playing cards on the bodies.
Anyways, Charlie is at this funeral, and he’s consoling the mothers of the fallen men. He’s telling me, with much passion, that he’s going to crucify the people responsible for this.
Then someone arrives to tell him that something has happened to his shitsu, Bonny.
And then we truly see Charlie’s true colors.
He goes apeshit and when the Irish priest at the funeral tries to calm him down, Charlie responds by pushing him into an open grave. Yep. He pushes. A priest. Into. An open grave.
And now worlds are about to collide. People are about to die.
And it reminds me a lot of McDonagh’s play, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”. Which is about a psychopath named Padraic, a leader in a Irish National Liberation Army splinter group, who finds out his best friend has been killed.
His best friend is a cat named Wee Thomas.
Anyways, a bloodbath ensues as Padraic returns to his old stomping grounds as he avenges the cat.
So Charlie is a bit like Padraic. His interrogation starts with the woman who was walking Bonny when he went missing. She’s chained to a chair and he has a gun in his hand. And if we weren’t sure about Charlie’s sanity already, this scene provides us with frightful and hilarious clarity.
It can be argued, that when it comes to plays, that what you need is three ingredients. (1) Quirky characters. (2) Good dialogue. (3) Interesting stories for each character. And off you go.
The idiom of McDonagh’s work is that, yes, he has quirky characters. And he also has dialogue that captures a sense of madness through speech. His characters express themselves through the oddness of their expressions. And not only do they seem to have interesting backstories, the stories that they are living portraying in the present to the audience are compelling and interesting as well.
But plays are different. You can tell more than you have to show, and you can get away with it.
Cinematically, it’s wise to show more than you tell.
And McDonagh has some great stories that he shows us here. You see, there are stories within stories here. The frame device is the screenplay Marty is writing, and he needs to find and populate his story with seven characters. Seven characters worthy of the title psychopath. Seven psychopaths with interesting stories to tell.
There’s a funny bit of business that involves a hungover Marty finding an ad in the paper, a call for psychopaths with interesting stories to be used in a film being written by Marty. He didn’t put this in the paper. Billy did.
And this is how we meet Zachariah. He’s very old. He arrives to Marty’s apartment to tell his tale to Marty’s tape recorder. Marty just wants to be rid of the guy, so he goes about his business making coffee and such when he hears Zachariah reveal that he lived his life as a serial killer who travelled the country killing other serial killers.
He didn’t do this alone. He had a girlfriend and partner named Maggie.
And it’s the type of well-told tale that catches your breath. And what starts out as a story about grisly serial killers turns into a sad tale of regret and love lost.
Zachariah’s motive for coming to Marty is so that Marty will post a note after the credits roll if his screenplay is ever made into a film from Zachariah to Maggie.
You see, he’s an old man looking for the woman that got away.
And it’s a powerful, touching sequence that made me cry. And then I was laughing while crying at the irony of shedding tears over the story of a couple that offed serial murderers.
And that’s what makes this script such a joy and pleasure to experience. It’s the stories and connections and reversals that rise to the surface as a man looking for his stolen dog wreaks havoc on the people responsible.
The characters speak dialogue that showcases McDonagh’s ear for elliptical speech. People often speak around subjects and the truth before they finally settle on it. It takes them a bit of time to figure out how they’re going to approach a subject or something that’s bothering them. But when they finally do, it’s a moment of connection that lights up the circuits and gets our agreement and empathy.
There’s a great line of dialogue, a line that resonates still:
“I think anything made with brains and heart is life-affirming, no matter how black the subject matter.”
Living in the Bible Belt, people like to make me feel weird.
Sometimes they ask me, “How can you like that? It’s not uplifting.”
Like this one time I was watching David Gordon Green’s “Snow Angels”, and after it ended, my roommate, who had been grading papers in front of the flat-screen, she says, “That wasn’t very uplifting, was it?”
And she scowled at me and told me it was a terrible, terrible film.
Not totally pleasant, yes, but it was totally captivating. It had things to say. Things about grief that spoke to me, calmed me as a person who was going through his own grief. But she clocked out and chose not to believe that it had things to say.
Now I’m a guy that likes somber, melancholy, dark fairy tales dripping with sparkled chiaroscuro and luminous tenebrae…I like stories with swearing and guns and knives and people behaving badly.
And you know, people will look at me and say, with a straight-face, that there’s no value to such stories. No artistic, humanistic, or moral merit.
Well, what a shitty stance that’s more a matter of taste and bias then it is of criticism. Than it is of giving a story a chance.
And it frustrates me, because I’m a person that tries to find the beauty and truth in everything. I want to say, didn’t you pay attention? There’s light here, there’s gem-like soul-stirring stuff going on here, and sometimes you need some of the darkness to accentuate the light, the life. It’s like alchemy, chemistry. You need the vile stuff, the dark stuff, to cull out the light.
Because I’m going to tell you right now, there are multiple moments in this story that violates Stuart Beattie’s screenplay axiom: “Never kill the dog.”
Animals die in this thing.
And so do people.
Life is hacked to death with a machete. It melts in pools of acid. Flare guns are shot into mouths, bullets bounce around inside bodies. There’s fisticuffs and bloody physicality. Men break up with women. Women and men both die tragic deaths.
And I don’t really think there’s any bias or prejudice betwixt the things that die in this script.
But there’s men professing love for each other. It’s not homosexuality. It’s the manly Romantic friendship found between two males in Victorian times and literature. You know how people would snicker in the theater during “Lord of the Rings” whenever Frodo and Sam gazed at each other? How people mistook that for them being hard and wet for each other?
There’s that except it’s not two dudes who want to fuck each other (it wasn’t in Tolkien either).
It’s a sense of honor, of loyalty, of friendship.
It’s also a meditation on Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”. Chinks in the armor and macho exteriors that lay bare the insecurities, the tenderness, the red-beating hearts of these characters. Push past through the posturing and physicality to see these men naked, offering their beating hearts in outstretched supplicant hands.
There’s writer as warrior.
You fight for the time and dedication to write, and sometimes you lose the simple pleasures of life in exchange. If you’re in a relationship, it’s a hard juggling act. Because writing has become your mistress, and your stories have become your children. You have to decide, who is going to be the wife, and who is going to be the mistress? Your writing? Or your mate?
I think there’s a sacrifice that comes with choosing a path as a writer, with things like logophilia or cinephilia. When you’re so haunted and obsessed with words and images you find the rest of the world passing you by as you lose yourself in the loop. Sometimes it’s out of your control.
And sometimes when you’ve worked months or years to complete something, you’ve shed friendships and jobs. You’ve opted not to settle on a straight career path and a yuppie life because you’re working something minimum wage while you live in a ratty apartment with Good Will décor as you spend the majority of your time writing.
Like Seven Samurai, these guys uphold their honor to each other, their friendships for the greater good, but it’s the warriors who ultimately lose. They have lost their lives and Marty has lost his friends. As Kambei muses, “Again we are defeated.”
Because in the end, Marty has even lost his girl because his writing is important, and she is, after all, a fucking bitch.
And with Marty alive, life-sustaining work has prevailed over war, left all warriors (Billy and Hans and the others) as the defeated party.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you’re someone like Martin McDonagh, you don’t compromise. People don’t tell him, “That’s a great first draft.” He has the confidence and the stubbornness and the belief in his own work to say, “We’re shooting it my way and we’re not going to change a fucking word.” And you know what? That’s what’s gonna happen. If you’re going to last in this business, you have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in your scripts. The moment you lose belief, the moment you quit and give up. It’s over. Otherwise, how are other people going to believe in you? Are you writing for a paycheck? Or are you writing because you need and have to tell stories? Are you writing a story to tell it to other people, or are you telling it to yourself?