Sinister (2012) – Scott Derrickson (Dir.) Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred “I Ran For President Once” Thompson, James Ransone
Seven Psychopaths (2012) – Martin McDonagh (Dir.), Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton
Ah, the ‘multiplex’. To us film-loving types, it is a rite of passage. An act of daring. A maneuver of such dastardly elusiveness, only the most capable of cinematic scoundrels can pull it off! Well, that was back in the days of not-being-17 and wanting, nay, needing to see South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut in theaters (Damn you, Wild Wild West for your bloated ticket sales!). Nowadays, the only reason to sneak into a movie while paying for a different one would be because you’re too poor in your post-college life to afford two tickets to two movies you only kinda want to see. Never fear! I did the adult thing! I multiplexed the SHIT out of these movies!…In that I saw one, left, ate some Panera (like a fucking adult) and then paid for the other movie. I be a classy mutherfucker (P.S. my mom reads this – or, as it’s pronounced in England ‘mum’, or, on the rare occasion, ‘boodle-matron’. Just thought you should all know). So, yes, as a busy adult with busy adult things to do, I had to fit these two badboys of movie mayhem into a single afternoon. Armed with a Meg and a Huntsberger, we stormed the beaches of mediocre horror and meta-McDonagh-magic. Now, I could have written two articles…but guess what? I have shit to do. So you get one. But it’s a long one. (That’s what she said. Lucky girl.)
So, what have we here? Sinister, the not-so-awaited follow up to Insidious, and the prequel to Nefarious, which will be, in turn, a spin-off of the series: Iniquitous, Not Very Nice, and Kind of a Dick, tells the tale of an asshole getting killed really, really slowly by always making the wrong choices (SPOILERS). His name is Ethan Hawke. Well, it’s something else in the movie…but who will ever actually remember? He writes books about murders and then goes to the places where the murders happen and…well, that stuff is boring. The interesting part is that he discovers a collection of ‘Home Movies’ made by a gentleman who could give Rob Zombie some hints on how to actually string a series of scenes together. This guy is, in fact, an ancient Babylonian deity with a penchant for Super 8 film named ‘Bughool’ or ‘Bug Drool’ or ‘Bunghole’ or ‘Not as Scary as The Ring; You’re Trying Too Hard’. This fellow eats children, like you do, and usually dines on the youngest in a family that he then murders in gloriously ritualistic fashion. If you have half a brain, you have to ask yourself, who is going to murder the incessant and egregiously penis-esque Ethan Hawke and what fun way will they do it? I won’t spoil anything…though I already have, but it is fairly amusing.
So, after witnessing a good deal of horror movies in the last month and an unacceptable amount during my rather miniature lifespan, it’s become clear that the ‘horror’ well is running a little dry. Yes, every now and then, a delicious cup of water comes up with the bucket, glistening like gems in the light…right before that kid from The Ring turns your face into a Picasso. But, more often than not, the bucket just comes up with sludge. Sometimes you’ll find some lead in there as well, double trouble. Since most of the classic horror beasts were created in the 70s and 80s, people have been attempting to rehash the magic. And, in some cases, they literally rehash what they think is the magic, only to discover that it’s a bucket filled with turd-meat (I’m looking at you, Jason X). The only team that has perhaps come anywhere close would be that of Saw. Like it or not, the ‘Jigsaw Killer’ is now an accepted member of the collective imagination, no matter how hackneyed and painful the later installments may be. Those boys went on to make the gloriously bat-shit movie that was Insidious. Now, beginning screenwriters, you know those rules everyone tells you about structure and tone and dramatic arc? Well, eat those. Regurgitate them. Blend them. Drink them again. And then puke on a computer. That would about explain the narrative arc of that movie. However, it was surprisingly interesting, for the most part. And then, the final act, descends into a realm reserved only for the Marquis De Sade, Salvador Dali and Charlie Sheen. It was a mess of such colossal proportions that even Lindsay Lohan gave it a once over before saying, “Gurl, get it together“.
So, here we have their follow-up. Does it make more sense? Yes. Is it as interesting? No. I’ll give the boys props, Bughool, or whatever his name is, comes off as exceedingly, what’s the word I’m looking for?…It’s like evil, but more baleful. Menacing? No. It’s not ‘insidious’…oh, man, it’s going to bug me. I’ll let you know when I think of it. Anyway, as a villain, he keeps the creep factor in the land of ‘Uncles Commenting on Their 16-year-old Nieces’ Bikini Facebook Pictures’, even if his face looks like if Gene Simmons’ forgot his safeword on bondage night. if you’ve seen any of the commercials, you’ve already witnessed the ‘scary’ bits (the paused image looking at Ethan Hawke, the harem of missing children watching a Bughool movie in the attic, etc.) so the rest of it is just a dude wandering around a house with a baseball bat. What is truly rotten at the core of this otherwise outwardly delicious treat is Mr. Hawke. He does a fine job as an actor. However, his character is so utterly detestable that all you can do for the length of the movie is hope that his demise involves some sort of accident involving testicles in a blender (it doesn’t). When offered night after night of terrifying shit, he still lies to his hot British wife about the fact that they are living in the house where the last victims were hilawkwardly murdered only a few months before. It’s all in the service of him refusing to accept that he’s a shitty author whose fifteen minutes of fame are over. Perhaps the writers were attempting to create some sort of tragic figure with Ethan “I’m a Really Serious Actor, I Promise” Hawke…but he is simply another Horror-Movie-Alcoholic-Dad (TM). And we all know what happens to them. The thing plays out like a parable written by Aesop after a weekend doing heroin with Edgar Allan Poe. There are no shocking turns, no surprises. You can discern the ending within the first twenty minutes of the movie. Thus, when it all comes together in exactly the way you expect, all you can do is leave the theater with a shrug.
Perhaps the only true moments of brilliance in this melange of mediocrity all involve the found footage (eh? Eh? It’s even in this one!). Bughool’s movies are delightfully sadistic and the true reason for this movie’s R-rating. I don’t want to give any of them away, but my favorite involves a tracking shot on a lawnmower. Each film is beautifully scored with the creepiest of tunes (in fact, the whole movie has an excellent soundtrack, keeping the events tense even if the script isn’t pulling it’s fucking weight. Lazy script. Get a job, you hippie!) and begins with a simple scene of idyllic suburban bliss before cutting to one of four unique bloodbaths. In a sense, these vignettes cut to the core of what film fundamentally is. Here, it’s a disturbing exploration of the art-form’s voyeuristic basis, going so far as to recreate the closest thing to a snuff film you can legally see. Seriously, they go to impressive lengths. It promotes the idea that this violence and these horrid acts are part of a collective evil running through our society, a need to see brutality in it’s purest form, a completely sinister…
THAT’S THE WORD I WAS LOOKING FOR! Holy shit. I’m glad I remembered it. What are the odds of that?
Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, yes, Seven Psychopaths.
So, onto a better (kind of) movie. To those of you who don’t know, I have a minor love affair with writer/director Martin McDonagh. His plays The Pillowman, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmoore and The Cripple of Inishmaan are some of my favorite works I’ve ever read. He instills a deep sense of dark Irish humor with British violence and cynicism while managing to tie the package with the neat ribbon of pathos. His first attempt at film, Six Shooter, ended up with an exploding cow and an oscar. His second was the inconceivably hysterical and sad In Bruges, a semi-parody of another one of my favorite plays, The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter. So, basically, I’d have his babies. I know I don’t have the equipment, but I will find a way. I vow, here and now.
But then, the balloon was pierced and, instead of popping and scaring the shit of nearby babies, it just kind of wheezes. I attended a production of his new play A Behanding in Spokane in Chicago. Yes, the performance sucked…but what was at the center was a shallow, bland tale that used violence to cover up is completely surface nature. Gone was the Irish longing, the romanticism drenched in modern urban brutality, the deep roots in the art of storytelling. It was just a dude hurting two idiots. So, after seeing that and the trailer to his newest venture, I found myself nervous. Would this be a further descent into the mouth of blandness? Has Mr. McDonagh completed his path to hack-dom? Will Christopher Walken Walken the shit out of this thing?
Well…it’s complicated. I enjoyed this movie greatly, with my healthily guffawing theater friends flanking me on both sides. From the opening where we witness the incomparable Michael Stuhlbarg and the DSLicious Michael Pitt get randomly murdered by a guy wearing a parka, you know you’re in for something a little…well…screwy. And screwy it is, folks! The entire first half of flick builds up the belief that this is some kind of Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez/Pineapple Express action comedy where all the ‘psychopaths’ get into place for a final, fatal, self-fellacious showdown. But the second half is extremely not that. To some, it might disappear up its own ass. To others, something a little more subtle is going on.
Marty, Colin Farrell (and the name of the author? Hmmm. I see what you did there), is a screenwriter who’s been stuck on the same title page of a script for months. Every night he drinks and every night he does little more than piss off his shrewish and inexplicably Australian girlfriend, Abby Cornish. At the same time, Sam Rockwell steals dogs and returns them to owners for a profit. Chris Walken is, well, the most fucking Chris Walken I have ever seen. In fact, the levels of Walken-ness are so relentless that you eventually stumble from the theater with a randomly broken speech pattern and the completely shocking ability to softshoe. Woody Harrelson is a vulnerable and homicidal mob boss with a penchant for losing his temper. Tom Waits is a dude with a rabbit. There’s also a Vietnamese priest talking to a hooker. And then Harry Dean Stanton shows up in a story as a tenacious and murderous quaker. There are so many disparate elements on display that its almost impossible to predict how they’ll all slot together.
And then Mr. McDonagh cheats his fucking ass off. Now, that sounds bad, I know. But it isn’t. Well, unless you don’t like meta. If you don’t care for references within references within references within Leo DiCaprio making that squinty face within references, don’t see this movie. However, if you can handle a little self-reflexive media (let’s be real, unabashedly and unremittingly self-reflexive media) then you should. It’s like Adaptation with more grievous bodily harm. It’s as though, as I did, Mr. McDonagh examined his career, his body of work, and noticed a few glaring issues. First: he relies on violence far too much. He uses his flippant tone to whittle his characters down to nothing more than meat fodder. Second: his female characters have gradually evaporated from his repertoire, reduced to nothing more than whores or saints about to be butchered or simply cut from the story. Third: the love is gone. His earlier works are soaked in a dark reverence for the odd inhabitants of Gallway Bay, where he spent his childhood summers. Gradually, culminating with A Behanding in Spokane, he has lost all affection for his subject matter and that which seemed endearing parody has become ruthless ridicule. Seven Psychopaths is his literary path towards dealing and overcoming each and every one of these problems, while simultaneously engaging in them entirely.
We have Mr. Farrell, as a stand-in for McDonagh, at the center of two opposing ideologies. On one side we have the chucklicious and unhinged mind of Sam Rockwell (who I don’t think was given lines, he simply made it up as he went and the result is delightful), proposing to end their tale with the cliched and overwrought gunfight, a shower of titties and a veritable gore-bath. On the other, we have Mr. Walken, who has a strong love for the human condition. We see McDonagh’s/Farrell’s struggle with the compassion for these psychopaths and the frustration with trying to end the tale with love. How they do it is perhaps my favorite aspect of this film and terrifyingly similar to
Naughty Sinister. They tell tales. Fairytales, folktales, horror stories, fables and all the rest. From the frightfully excellent Tom Waits telling his narrative of a vicious love story that hadn’t yet ended to the arc of Mr. Walken, we get some incredible links from pure sadism to touching human emotion. The movie is no conclusion and, for the most part, is surprisingly messy. And that’s fine. It has its shoot-outs, its chortlifying moments of dark comedy etc. But, like Sinister, the miniature vignettes stand out as beautiful deconstructions of their form. Sinister solely serves to study cinema as it’s seen, while Seven Psychopaths scrutinizes the skill of spinning a story.
I left Seven Psychopaths thinking hard about who I am as an artist. It takes a lot of balls to spend millions of dollars to tell the journey of a man stuck in his career’s mid-life crisis. Luckily, this guy knows how to make ’em laugh. Truly, though, the stories of a man avenging his daughter’s death, a Vietnamese priest avenging his murdered family, and Mr. Waits avenging his wife’s past are all deeply touching in their own, twisted fashion. So, in a way, Mr. McDonagh has found it again. Let’s hope, in the coming years, that he manages to dig his way out of his own ass and create something new. For now, we’ll let him wallow in his filmic colon because, you know what? His excrement is a damn side more artistic than half of Hollywood on a good day.