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“Seven Psychopaths” is a dark, layered comedy written and directed by Martin McDonagh, starring Colin Farrell, the same pair who worked so well together in the equally odd and effective “In Bruges” (2008).

Mr. McDonagh, it will be remembered, also wrote the play “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” which won multiple nominations and awards in London and in the U.S. from 1996 through 1998. While Mr. Farrell has been up and down with critics, he too has had definite successes.

Oddball actors Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson also star. Musician Tom Waits has a meaty part, a bizarrely funny reference to John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” (Mr. Waits is perhaps best known to some through the television show “The Wire”; he wrote the song “Way Down in the Hole” and his own version is the theme song of season two. Viewers will see a host of other actors they know, such as Gabourey Sidibe and Harry Dean Stanton.)

Mr. Farrell plays Marty, an Irish screenwriter living in California, successful enough to have a contract – and a deadline – for a screenplay he has already decided to call “Seven Psychopaths.” He has a serious case of writers’ block, however, and can only come up with one psychopath. He accidentally becomes involved in his best friend’s illegal and surprisingly dangerous dog-stealing “business” operation.

The visible conflict of Colin Farrell’s physical confidence and lost, befuddled look work well in “Seven Psychopaths” just as it did in “In Bruges.” Marty cannot get more than a paragraph written on his screenplay despite the fact that, were he even remotely observant and less self-centered, he would see that he is surrounded by people who are – to all but him – obviously psychopaths.

The film is very funny. It is also very violent; indeed, it focuses on violence and its perception and meaning in different narrative environments. People who view – and this is no judgment – pretend violence as barely distinguishable from a presentation of real violence will not enjoy “Seven Psychopaths.” This movie is, however, completely successful in demonstrating how the viewer’s understanding of, and feelings about, film violence depend upon its presentation.

Violence of various kinds takes place in this film and, as intended, they evoke very different emotions in the viewer. Cartoon violence that hardly anyone will see as real (especially after years of TV- and movie-viewing) makes the audience laugh – and it is very funny. Comic-book-type violence is received as just desserts or the precursor to righteous vengeance.

However, other scenes of casual violence hit the viewer hard as frightening and tragic. The last demand notice; they throw the viewer out of the film and require him/her to think about his or her reactions to all of the film’s violent occurrences. A racist remark is more unpleasant than murder up to the point at which it occurs, but it sets up the violence that follows and the viewer’s response to it. Even the way in which people view animals on film is addressed (The animals are all okay, even if the people are not, and isn’t it a kicker that it’s a relief to know that?).

To compare the movie to a roller coaster for both viewer and poor, clueless Marty would not be unjustified. It works because all the acting is by and large very good. Mr. Farrell suits his role as the movie’s straight man and survivor, as he did in “In Bruges.” Sam Rockwell tries too hard at some points, but it is not too hard to rationalize the behaviors with his character and move on. Christopher Walken is unbelievably moving in his role; it recalls his role as the father in “Catch Me If You Can.” Linda Bright Clay is wonderful as his wife; Harry Dean Stanton is silently perfect; Zeljko Ivanek (whose face, if not his name, will be recognized from a zillion TV shows and movies) has a small part he plays beautifully.

Mr. Harrelson is just right as the crime honcho who is completely unfeeling except regarding his dog. On one level, this encourages the viewer to believe there is at least something good about the man. On another, however, the question is clear: Is it possible for a man so callous toward human beings to really love anything?

The original music by the flexible Carter Burwell, who did the music for “No Country for Old Men” (2007), “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Twilight” (2008), among others, is just right. Other music used in the film is entertainingly disparate, including Hank Williams’ “Angel of Death,” music by Hector Berlioz, The Walkmen and The Stone Poneys.

The bottom line for viewers is: Those who can handle the heat will enjoy this film and get a lot out of it. Those who cannot should stay out of the “Seven
Psychopaths” kitchen.

Length: 1 hr. 51 min Rated: R