There will always be an audi­ence for crime movies: the thrill of see­ing some­one break the law — and see­ing the costs that come with law-break­ing — is great fuel for the con­flict nec­es­sary to good sto­ry­telling.  Like any famil­iar gen­re, the crime movie also pos­es an allur­ing chal­lenge to film­mak­ers: how do you take those famil­iar ele­ments and themes and make them feel fresh?  Not every film­mak­er tries to answer that ques­tion but the ones who do have at least have a chance at bring­ing a fresh vibe to the old arche­types.

And that’s exact­ly what Martin McDonagh has done with Seven Psychopaths, a film that joy­ful­ly indulges in the ele­ments of the crime film while also sub­tly send­ing them up.  The cat­a­lyst of the sto­ry is Marty (Colin Farrell), an L.A.-based screen­writer who wants to write a script about the title sub­ject but spends more time avoid­ing work, drink­ing and goof­ing off with his out-of-work actor pal Billy (Sam Rockwell).  He doesn’t know it but inspi­ra­tion is about to strike in a big way for rea­sons he can’t fore­see.

The rea­son is sim­ple: Billy is embroiled in a scam with pen­sion­er Hans (Christopher Walken). This duo steal dogs from their own­ers, waits for the own­ers to put up a reward notice and then returns the dogs to get the cash.  It’s a pret­ty lucra­tive scam, at least until they pick up a dog that belongs to Charlie (Woody Harrelson).  Charlie is a crime boss who is real­ly attached to his dog and is will­ing to put a lot of mus­cle and bul­lets into get­ting the dog back.  He lash­es out, Billy and Hans are forced to go on the run and Marty finds all the script mate­ri­al he ever want­ed while trapped in the mid­dle.

In terms of the plot setup, Seven Psychopaths might seem like a throw­back to the post-Tarantino wave of post­mod­ern crime flicks from the mid-to-late ‘90s.  However, it actu­al­ly goes for a more hon­est, self-satir­i­cal vari­a­tion of gen­re decon­struc­tion by com­par­ing the fan­ta­sy world of the crime film to the oft stranger and more poignant foibles of real life.  For exam­ple, McDonagh fre­quent­ly dra­ma­tizes sec­tions of Marty’s script as char­ac­ters dis­cuss it, allow­ing for a rip­ple effect between the two as the audi­ence shows how dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives can affect the same kind of mate­ri­al.

The best exam­ple of this kind of scene comes when Billy pitch­es Marty and Hans on his ver­sion of Peckinpah-style “to the death” shootout, describ­ing an absurd­ly over-the-top sce­nar­io as it is inter­cut with a hilar­i­ous drama­ti­za­tion of his con­cept.  The com­bi­na­tion of Rockwell’s divine­ly mani­a­cal deliv­ery and the absurd yet beau­ti­ful­ly-craft­ed action real­ly sells the gid­dy rush of mak­ing up a sto­ry while also show­ing the ridicu­lous extremes the process can lead the cre­ator to.  It’s also one of the fun­ni­est and most cre­ative sce­nes in any movie this year.

The film also goes on to con­trast the dif­fer­ence between how sit­u­a­tions hap­pen in a sto­ry and how they go down in real life.  Indeed, the finale of the film is full of such moments, like a moment where thugs pull a gun on Hans only to find him so defi­ant­ly unco­op­er­a­tive that it leaves them dumb­struck.  There is also a “Mexican stand­off” that effec­tive­ly skew­ers that con­cept by deliv­er­ing a finale that is hilar­i­ous and trag­ic by turns. In moments like the­se, Seven Psychopaths shows a play­ful flair as it sets up the audi­ence to expect one thing and then deliv­ers some­thing sur­pris­ing.

Finally, Seven Psychopaths ben­e­fits from act­ing that lives up to the qual­i­ty and com­plex­i­ty of its take on the crime gen­re.  Farrell plays again­st type as a neb­bish and turns in a well-stud­ied comedic per­for­mance.  Walken is given a unique­ly inspired vehi­cle for the odd­ball comedic per­sona he’s devel­oped since the ‘90s and man­ages to give a per­for­mance that off­sets the expect­ed quirks with a soul­ful­ness.  Harrelson takes the crime boss char­ac­ter that would be ham­my in lesser hands and finds dif­fer­ent lev­els of cru­el­ty, heart­break and treach­ery that give it fresh ener­gy.

Best of all, Rockwell gives one of the best per­for­mances of 2012 as Billy.  He’s the kind of actor chameleon­ic enough that he often ends up play­ing sup­port in larg­er ensem­bles but he’s given a char­ac­ter here that allows him to show his range — and he runs with it.  Billy is the kind of char­ac­ter you can’t take your eyes off of because he’s so joy­ous­ly alive and unpre­dictable: he’s mak­ing you laugh one moment, scar­ing you the next, seem­ing like a charm­ing naïf in one scene and then flip­ping that per­cep­tion with a moment of keen obser­va­tion in a lat­er moment (like a great bit where he offers his take on the old “eye for an eye leaves all blind” proverb).  Rockwell han­dles each shift with pre­ci­sion, deliv­er­ing an epic dis­play of charis­ma and ener­gy while mak­ing it look effort­less.   It’s pure mag­ic to watch him at work and he’s so good you’ll hope he gets more roles like this in future.

Best of all, McDonagh con­fi­dent­ly guides all this tal­ent in a frame­work wor­thy of their skills.  Seven Psychopaths is the kind of film that starts play­ful­ly pulling the rug out from under­neath the audi­ence in the first few min­utes and con­tin­ues to do so through­out the entire run­ning time.  However, McDonagh nev­er set­tles for emp­ty show­man­ship: he makes sure the char­ac­ters are the core of his sto­ry and arranges the twists and turns in a man­ner that allows them to reveal new sides of them­selves.

In short, Seven Psychopaths is the rare “have your cake and eat it, too” propo­si­tion that actu­al­ly works: it shows respect for the dra­mat­ic allure of tough-guy sit­u­a­tions while also con­front how and why they would be painful or comic in the real world.  It’s a shame it’s the kind of film most peo­ple will dis­cov­er on home video because it offers the kind of cre­ative take on gen­re film­mak­ing that deserves box office prof­its.