Two comedies and fewer laughs: Seven Psychopaths and Sightseers

01 December 2012

'Seven Psychopaths', in cinemas from Wednesday 5 December, is Martin McDonagh's self-conscious follow-up to 'In Bruges', while 'Sightseers' appears to promote a casual disdain for humanity, much like director Ben Wheatley's previous film 'Kill List'.

It’s almost as if In Bruges (2008) hadn’t made it clear that Martin McDonagh’s imagination amounts to a casual, self-conscious racism, misogyny and verbal verbosity punctuated by grisly, charmless violence.

Seven Psychopaths is McDonagh’s follow-up to that film and continues its incessant brand of clever, wisecracking comedy. Marty (Colin Farrell) is an Irish alcoholic screenwriter based in LA, who’s struggling with his latest script, “Seven Psychopaths”. Whatever progress Marty has is stalled when he becomes embroiled in a dog-theft racket concocted by best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken), who have stolen the beloved canine pet of dim-witted gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). As the film develops, Marty draws upon his ideas to influence reality and, likewise, upon unfolding events to inspire his script. The two layers become entwined…

McDonagh is making an industry of non-event. In Bruges was about an impossibly boring town in Belgium that also happened to be a nice plug for the city's architecture; for its plot, a more violent Waiting for Godot, we had two tourists-with-guns awaiting orders from their foul-mouthed boss. There’s an element here, too, of narrative inertia, and McDonagh works his own apparent writer’s block into what is, conceptually, an inherently self-validating vehicle. Self-reflexivity might be seen here as a defence mechanism, allowing McDonagh to throw any shit he can think of at the wall in the hope, presumably, that the sound of the splatter alone will be funny. The trouble is, it feels like the kind of film someone might write while suffering from writer’s block.

Seven Psychopaths is not without its moments, but for a film whose ongoing focus is writing, it’s a shame these are, for the most part, image-based. In a wordless cameo as an Amish psychopath, Harry Dean Stanton is deadpan-hilarious in the same way ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano was in films such as 1989’s Violent Cop (referenced in Seven Psychopaths early on). Christopher Walken, too, leaves his fellow performers in the dust; his is the only acting style here that seems able to deliver dialogue without it sounding like it’s had a very writerly hand behind it.

McDonagh’s continued esteem as a writer, however, is unfortunate and baffling. As talky but not as witty as this year’s other black comedy set in an underworld of folly, Killing Them Softly, Seven Psychopaths churns out risible and offensive gags that render the occasional namedrop (of, for instance, Kieslowski) undeserved. Because the film isn’t set in a sustained, relatable reality, references to “Polacks” and “Niggers” and jokes about AIDS do little to qualify this as a sophisticated or even edgy comedy. Meanwhile, Billy claims that “peace is for queers,” while Hans asserts “dream sequences are for fags… Not just fags. And I don’t think they like to be called fags.” But token bouts of self-consciousness do little to compensate. “Your women characters are awful,” says Hans to Marty, while the latter defends another scene by admitting that one character is “not even a priest, I just liked the image of a Vietnamese guy in a priest’s outfit.” Adolescent and self-absorbed, McDonagh’s dialogue is irritating and forceful, and when Hans says to Marty that psychopaths “get tiresome after a while, don’t they?” you can’t help but mouth, Then why, in all seriousness, are we watching this?

Sightseers (out now), meanwhile, continues director Ben Wheatley’s keen and discomfiting feel for deeply unpleasant folk. It is his third feature after 2009’s Down Terrace and last year’s Kill List; the former is known for its shoestring budget and homemade promise, while the latter presented its director as the latest addition to a UK film culture too easily manipulated by hype and anti-intellectual trendsetting. Now that Wheatley’s name precedes his films, he has the kind of marketing campaign that independent cinemas can lap up in order to perpetuate an industry of quirk, drawing upon the sweeping whims of caravans, souvenir gonk toys, knitted undergarments and embittered jokes about being ginger, all of which help familiarise audiences with the film’s nerdy rural universe so that the joy going into the film is how its otherwise innocuous setting will be made so impossibly dark and murderous. In other words, while Kill List’s novelty was in its (signposted) third-act hop of genres, Sightseers’ superficial appeal is its promise of such fusions. This is a more rewarding film than Wheatley’s previous effort, though it is not without severe limitations.

Sightseers features Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who wrote the script together) as Tina and Chris, two lovers who embark in the film’s prologue upon a sprawling caravan trip to celebrate their third month anniversary. During a guided tour through Chris’s beloved Crich Tramway Village, the romantic mood is unsettled when a litterbug refuses to acknowledge the Cornetto wrapper he has casually discarded. Afterwards, Chris vents his frustration to Tina in the on-site cafĂ©; moments later, they ready themselves to leave before reversing out of the car park and accidentally mowing the litterer down, slicing his jugular and severing his arm – his wife and son look on, mortified. Though the first death in Sightseers is unintentional, the focus given to the flow of crimson bubbling from the victim’s neck primes us for the cumulative bloodbath to come.

As “Tainted Love” warned us on the soundtrack, things go awry. At the next campsite, Chris’s enthusiasm for another couple’s caravan model elicits their defensive middle-class frigidity. A brief but charged episode ends with a dinner plate shattered in spite, but the couple’s casual revelation that the husband is researching his third book stays with Chris, whose jealousy runs deep through the night: at dawn the next morning, in a fit of associate montage that pays homage to the climactic sacrifice/slaughter in Apocalypse Now (1979), he offs his fellow camper with multiple blows to the skull. And so begins a spree of disproportionate punishments meted out upon hapless victims, ranging from a self-righteous country walker who threatens to report our protagonists to the National Trust for failing to scoop their stolen dog’s poop, to a shitfaced bride-to-be who carries out a silly hen-party dare.

Though there is a whiff of class tension brimming beneath the lead-up to the early murders, Chris is externalising his rage from an ultimately unprincipled outlook. He isn’t driven to murder simply by the stiff upper lip with which his first victim addresses him, but by the apologetic way in which the latter brags, with encouragement from his wife, about a literary career that Chris himself longs for. Indeed, the brutality of the film’s first murder isn’t just in the violence of the act itself, but in its premeditation: while there is a playful arrogance to the way Chris deliberately upsets the couple by smashing a piece of their crockery, the subsequent murder hints at a deeply confused jealousy on our protagonist’s part. Despite and because of the fact that his behavioural indifference and wronged self-esteem are outcomes of social exclusion, Chris lacks the confidence to content himself on his own terms. Consequently, he seeks approbation on others’ terms, but his own intellectual complacency begets misanthropic distortions, and so he ends the lives of others in order to defer a no-doubt insufferable self-assessment.

What’s problematic, here, is the fact that this film is both intended and received as a comedy when in fact its synopsis reads more like an episode of Cracker – only from the killers’ perspectives. Without Fitz’s explanatory and humanising psycho-framework, though, we have a narrative point-of-view that makes us complicit in a way similar to Schrader and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976); the laughs, as a result, appear exploitative. Like Chris, the film evinces a casual disdain for humanity – even, perhaps, for itself. (Promotional posters quote one reviewer’s claim that the film is “the best British comedy since Four Lions, which gives good indication of the confused levels on which it’s operating, and the insidious extent to which it attracts critics.)

Problematising this interpretation, of course, is Tina, who comprises one half of the film’s central couple and is also the closest Sightseers comes to achieving some kind of optimistic arc. At the beginning of the film, we see ample evidence of Tina’s smothered home life, which accounts for her suggestible naivety, on which Chris half-consciously pounces in order to attain her devotion. When she finds out he’s killed a man, Tina extends understanding to her feller, and in the name of romance is all-too-willing to ride along up front with it. Because murder is Chris’s way of reconceptualising the world to his preferred formula, however, Tina’s adoption of such antics challenges his self-elevating, singular authority. (A running theme is authorship, or authorial authority, if you like – the ability to write and/or re-write the world, to re-shape events with a literal or figurative tool: Chris, the bullied wannabe writer, turns to sticks and stones as a way of communicating his anger, while Tina buys a £25 giant pencil late in the film and sits in a gift shop writing him a botched letter with it.)

Offing another woman to exorcise her own inner jealousy, Tina is scolded by Chris, who tells her his murders were justified, and that hers somehow isn’t. Misanthropy here is gendered, as are the double standards with which Chris enacts it. But gendered tensions are indeed social tensions, and Sightseers is a frankly limited picture of what we intuitively assume and accept to be the driving force of the characters’ lives – social currents: economic, political, cultural and so on. As with Kill List, Wheatley is keen enough to show in graphic detail here the obliterated face of a man whose head has been bashed into a rock, but displays elsewhere an alarming willingness to shirk the deeper questions. Mannerist horror, then? Fair enough. But why all the fuss?