This past weekend was cinematically unique insofar as three original films—in genres ranging from dark comedy, historical thriller, and horror—hit the multiplex with the same preoccupation with the cinema. Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, the follow-up to his phenomenal debut In Bruges, focuses on the creative obstacles that screenwriter Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) faces when penning a screenplay entitled “Seven Psychopaths.” Like the protagonist of Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze collaboration Adaptation (McDonagh doesn’t take his meta-concept to the point where reality blurs into fiction), Marty doesn’t want his film to be conventional and would much prefer showcasing his characters waxing poetic over conflict. Ben Affleck’s Argo trades the process of screenwriting to the CIA sponsored pre-production of a film that saved American lives during the Iranian hostage crisis. Finally, while Seven Psychopaths and Argo focused on the pre-production stage, Scott Derrickson’s Sinister focuses on the exhibition and reception of analog motion pictures as true-crime writer Ellison (Ethan Hawke) comes across a box of super 8 snuff films and unleashes a violent force. With the goal of providing capsule critiques and analyzing how these three vastly different films approach their own medium, let’s follow the actions of Ellison and perform some textual analysis.
I’m not sure how much of an autobiographic element might be present in McDonagh’s Psychopaths. Comparing the film with In Bruges, it seems that Marty’s wrangling with writer’s block may have actually been McDonagh’s (after all, they both share the same first name!). Unlike Bruges, Psychopaths is not as well oiled of a machine. The film begins with two hit men (it’s a Boardwalk Empire reunion between Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) in a Tarantino-esque discussion about how to shoot their target through the eyeball. The discussion quickly turns to violence as the two hitmen are shot from behind by—as a freeze frame informs us—Psychopath #1: The Jack of Diamonds Killer, a serial killer targeting members of the Los Angeles mafia. The film then cuts to Marty discussing his screenplay with best friend/dognapper Billy (Sam Rockwell). Marty’s problem is he only has the title, character sketches of a couple of the seven psychopaths, and a lot of disinterest in a project focused on violence. Hoping to function as a muse, Billy takes out an ad in the L.A. Weekly asking psychopaths for their stories. Between the advertisement and Billy and his co-dognapper Hans (Christopher Walken) stealing a mobster’s (Woody Harrelson) dog, Marty quickly finds his screenplay taking shape.
Once events take a turn for the worse, Marty decides the best ending for his crime movie involves the heroes leaving town and hiding out in the desert to just talk. However, like Kaufman and Jonze, Marty—thanks to Billy’s prodding—is unable to stay away from the genre’s tropes of gun fights, showdowns, and Mexican standoffs. This is where the actual film Seven Psychopaths starts to suffer as McDonagh isn’t sure what he wants it to be. It starts off in the mode of the better Tarantino knockoffs of the late 90s (like Go) and spends the last forty minutes chasing its own tail without having the guts to explore the meta-textual wormholes it produces (which Adaptation had no qualms engaging with). To be fair, it is an entertaining journey, full of queasy laughter, and—thanks to Walken who balances self-parody with actual performance—decent performances. However, the film feels like a rough draft of Marty’s screenplay and, by the end of it, I was beginning to wonder if McDonagh was as disinterested in the film as his protagonist. For instance, character motivation for Billy—the narrative engine of the film—had me scratching my head. Is it enough to explain his actions with the motivation that he’s simply a psychopath (I wonder how many times that word and its variations appear in the screenplay) and shares his surname with Travis Bickle? No (although Rockwell nails the material he has been given, which is mainly a laundry list of shifty quirks).
While Seven Psychopaths’ frustrating focus on the frustrations of screenwriting proved slightly disappointing, Ben Affleck’s Argo—the true story of how the magic of the movies saved American lives—is far from it. In the midst of the Iran hostage crisis that lasted from 1979-1981, CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), the Canadian government, and some movers and shakers in Hollywood saved six American lives with a fake movie. With a small pool of “cover story” options to offer six escaped embassy employees (cast members include Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, and Scoot McNairy), Mendez options for a Hail Mary. Enlisting the help of Hollywood special effects veteran John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez and the CIA put the Star Wars knockoff “Argo” into pre-production. Storyboards are drawn up, business cards and posters are made, a news story in Variety is written, and Mendez flies to Iran posing as the film’s producer so that he can coach the six would-be-hostages into knowing enough about Hollywood to escape the Royal Guard.
Argo is rare piece of filmmaking indeed; a political suspense thriller in which only two bullets are fired that also captures the superficial qualities of Hollywood in an endearing, comedic fashion (the industry does its own part in saving the day, even if it took twenty years to find out about it). Affleck deftly transitions back and forth between satire-esque banter (“You think dealing with the Ayatollah is hard? Try dealing with the WGA!”) and nail biting sequences involving the Iranian government literally putting together the pieces of the plot. In one instance, Affleck is even able to juggle these two tones at the same time, as a live table read of “Argo Fuck Yourself” is cross-cut with a near execution, further bringing out the notion that this horrible facade of a movie needs to work to save these peoples’ lives. Affleck gets the most out of himself, his supporting cast, and the material—sometimes resorting to cross-cutting that overcooks the suspense—and, in the process, produces a film that is as much a piece of entertainment as it is a document of how entertainment helped bring some light to a dark period of our political history. It is not a flawless film, as the six escapees are—with the exception of Scoot McNairy’s character—vaguely defined, but it is the best selection on the weekend’s cinema about cinema menu.
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is a horror film of the most classic variety insofar as it is not drenched in hues of red. The scares of Sinister come from haunting imagery and a wonderfully designed soundtrack, the former of which is often presented to us and Ellison (Hawke) as super 8 films shot by a murderer in the midst of his acts. Ellison is a true-crime writer who has relocated his family to a small town to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. What Ellison fails to tell his loved ones is that the girl disappeared after her family was hung in a tree in the yard of the house in which they now live. When the family moves in, Ellison finds a scorpion, a box of “home movies,” and a film projector. When he cues up the first reel, he finds fleeting glimpses of the deceased family and begins to take notes like: “Who shot the film?” He slowly comes to the realization that it could not have been anyone in the family; they are all in the film. To make matters even more uneasy, Ellison starts to notice that the shots are all taken from hidden vantage points in bushes and trees. Finally, the film cuts to a shot of the family standing on the ground with bags over their heads and nooses around their necks. Slowly, a counter-weighted bough of the tree breaks loose, raising the family to their death by strangulation. The sequence is silent—just like those analog super 8 films—and only adds to the distressing disconnect between the medium of dreams and this reality of horrors. You can only imagine what he finds when he watches “Family BBQ” and “Cutting the Lawn.”
Sinister is at its best when the scares are more distressing because they are not overly aestheticized with grotesque blood squibs and close-up details. We watch one film that Ellison is too disgusted to finish in the reflection off of his glasses. We are not meant to relish in the horror and slowly the super 8 films begin to feel like 9/11 footage. The more Ellison re-visits the films, analyzing every dark crevice of the frame for a clue, the more the horror is easier to watch. This will terrify the thoughtful viewer because it slowly forces them to realize the desensitizing power of media. Have these films lead family members to execute their own families in a frustrated reaction to suburb life defined by the typical family activities of pool parties, swing sets, and BBQs? I had hoped the film was attempting to mine the same material that made Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining so horrifying (Ellison, like Torrence, is an alcoholic writer in a pressurized scenario). Sadly, the film deviates into full on supernatural mode which it goes on to over-explain through the mouthpiece of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Professor of the Occult . . . who fittingly wears a Pink Floyd t-shirt. This, along with its indulgence of one of the genre’s main flaws of establishing smart characters who do extremely stupid things (Why don’t they leave the house? I would have subtitled the film GTFO! Why doesn’t Ellison buy a gun after the first night?), are the film’s chief flaws. Still, it is a well-constructed fun house ride, even if it is ultimately disposable by not engaging with how the reception of horrific media—in extremely isolated cases (I would never blame The Dark Knight Rises for the Aurora shootings)—can incite violence among the already deranged.