There's a scene, late in Seven Psychopaths, the deliriously entertaining meta-movie that opens Friday, when Sam Rockwell's character Billy—the most psychopathic of all the psychopaths of the title—attempts to decipher the hoary adage, "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." He mulls for a second, letting the cliché clatter to and fro around his brain for a bit, until he stops. His eyes light up. "That's bullshit!" he yells. "No, it doesn't. There'll be one guy left with one eye. How's the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left?" Colin Farrell and Christopher Walken are left speechless: The guy is crazy, but he ain't wrong.
Seven Psychopaths is sort of Adaptation crossed with a Pulp Fiction-era grunge crime thriller, sort of a Things To Do In Los Angeles When You're Dead But Still Trying To Finish Your Screenplay. It follows Irish screenwriter Marty (played by Colin Farrell and clearly meant to be the cinematic representation of writer-director Martin McDonagh, of In Bruges) as he attempts to write a screenplay called Seven Psychopaths while crossing paths with dognappers, angry mobsters and, yes, a psychopath or two. The seven actors on the poster aren't the psychopaths of the title; they're the ones Marty tries to come up with while writing his screenplay, a process that keeps sneaking its way into the real-life action we're watching.
The film sounds a little too insider-screenwriter-process-y when I describe it this way, but trust me, the movie is way too much fun to get bogged down in neurotic writerland. It's mostly a showcase for these actors to have a terrific time with thick, juicy dialogue. Tom Waits, one of the actual psychopaths, delivers a lovely, sad monologue about a lost love and their dangerous pastime. (His section contains one of the film's best jokes, one I won't ruin here except to say that those frustrated by David Fincher's masterpiece will at last find some satisfaction). Great old grizzled Harry Dean Stanton has a wordless, hypnotic performance as a vengeful Amish father. Woody Harrelson has a giddy time chewing up scenery as a puppy-obsessed mass-murderer.
But the movie belongs to Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell. Walken gives one of his classic crazy-sad performances as a wistful dog-napper with a tragic past who's just trying to be with his wife, who is dying from cancer, while, on the side, taking an assload of peyote in the desert. Walken knows how plum a role he has here—it's one of the few Walken gigs that doesn't think simply casting Christopher Walken is enough of a joke—and he milks it for all it's worth. It's vintage Walken, the best he's been in years.
And he's still not the best thing about the movie. Rockwell has long been an energizing, unpredictable presence in movies—he's perpetually the only daring part of otherwise conventional movies, from The Green Mile to Iron Man 2 to Frost/Nixon—but he's a breathtaking freakshow here, the most I've enjoyed a supporting actor all year. His Billy is a psychopath in every possible definition, but an oddly sympathetic one, crazier, smarter, and more hopeful than anyone else in the film. There's a purity to Rockwell here; the movie goes off in a lot of different directions, but Billy is the soul of the film, the shining throughline blasting past everything else. He's loony, but never distancingly so. He's the psychopath who lives next door, the one you'd spend all night watching a Breaking Bad marathon with before noticing, when he left the next morning, that someone had severed the head of your three cats. It's a staggering, gloriously fun performance. Seven Psychopaths is a blast, but a week after seeing it, Rockwell's still what I remember the most. I think I want him to be in every movie from now on.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.