Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths has made me muse on the prospects of how attempts at clever screenwriting can detract from a film’s potential. Seven Psychopaths wasn’t terrible, it had some excellent component parts, but the through-line about a writer was a cheap attempt to pull its clever ideas together. And it would’ve been better off without some of its inconsequential dream sequences and the self-aggrandising dialogue. Rather than just pick apart what I didn’t like about Seven Psychopaths, I thought I’d use examples of other films to demonstrate how seemingly clever screenwriting can ruin a film. These are the 5 examples of poor screenwriting that sprung to my mind when I considered the various elements that weakened Seven Psychopaths.
1. Hero: time-wasting plot
I’m sure many people will disagree with me, but Hero fails to give its numerous flashbacks any actual weight. It might look nice and sure, people can still enjoy it, but the story is complete bunk. The plot in Hero is made pointless by revealing that most of what we’ve seen before didn’t actually happen. No amount of an enjoyed ride can prevent the lasting feeling that the writer spent so much time telling stories that were basically just an excuse for setting up scenes that didn’t actually happen.
Seven Psychopaths avoids this for the most part, even though many scenes are separate to the central story. Tom Waits’ tale and the tale of the Quaker psychopath work because they eventually tie back to the film’s reality. The graveyard shoot out, however, feels like a complete boondoggle.
Sadly, time-wasting in imagined stories is common in a lot of weak screenwriting. Other prime examples include Repo Men and Knowing, which basically shit all over their second halves by revealing the story was actually over halfway through and the rest was filler.
2. Revolver: trying to write something profound
Guy Ritchie’s early strength lay in cleverly interwoven plots with a gritty atmosphere. With Revolver he tried to make his clever plots more clever with ambiguity and deeper meaning. Only it doesn’t work because ambiguity and deeper meaning don’t go fit into pedestrian crime films. David Lynch makes an art form out of ambiguous filmmaking because of the way he builds an atmosphere, Revolver makes a mess of it because it’s so obvious and forced. Andre 3000 spouts a philosophical quote that isn’t deep to begin with, and by the fiftieth time he’s said it all that’s become clear is that the writer wants you to think it’s deep.
You’re left questioning why he’s trying convince you something profound is happening in what could have been an enjoyable crime caper. Which is a shame, because Mark Strong’s scenes were good fun. And the same is true of much of Seven Psychopath’s dialogue: when you really want the plot to keep moving, and to see more of the interesting characters, there is far too much discussion of inconsequential things. Clever dialogue that tries to be clever, for its own sake.
3. Rubber: a story about itself
Rubber got a lot of publicity on the internet because it was such an absurd idea. A horror film about a murderous tyre. Genius. Unfortunately it shot itself in the foot by turning a novel idea for a film into a film about itself. Much like Seven Psychopaths’ constant self-references, it deconstructed the narrative in a way that didn’t add anything enjoyable to the film. It just added exposition that detracted from what the viewer actually wants to see. In Rubber’s case, a tyre murdering people. Rubber could’ve been a fun film, instead it was annoyingly self-important. Like sitting down to read a good book and finding every sentence is interrupted by the author saying “I wrote this sentence this because I thought the words fit well together.” No one cares.
Actually that’s not strictly true – other filmmakers might care. Films about filmmaking often prove popular in the film industry itself, because filmmakers get the references and feel smug about being the centre of attention. But it’s a bit like masturbation: onlookers aren’t going to be impressed. In fact they’ll probably try and avoid you.
4. The Men Who Stare At Goats: good ideas with no story
Another of Seven Psychopaths’ crimes is that the overall story-arch isn’t effective. It jumps around too much, and whether or not the writer manages to write a film is not an exciting plot. A lot of the scenes and characters work well, they just don’t work well together. The same is true of The Men Who Stare At Goats. It had some excellent ideas, but the story was dull. I can barely even remember where the story went. The source material was novel, it just wasn’t enough on its own to make an effective film. There was no sense of development, no overall point. It’s not enough to have clever ideas, those ideas have to build towards something, or it’s not a film. It’s just a series of ideas that could’ve been a film.
5. Faster: deep characters that no one cares about
Something that often goes hand-in-hand with attempts at profound filmmaking is when the screenwriter tries to overdevelop characters (or storylines) that don’t warrant it. Faster is a perfect example of this, because it presents itself as a romp of an action film (it stars the Rock, for starters), but has three converging stories, two of which don’t need to be there. The assassin with a crisis of conscience doesn’t really do anything important, who cares about his emotional turmoil? His over-long presence in the film is confusing, boring, and too obviously dealt with to add anything meaningful to the story.
This is the opposite problem to Revolver, where Sorter was an instantly interesting character with engaging scenes, but placed in the middle of a mess of a film. Faster takes an otherwise standard action affair and throws in unnecessary character-based scenes that draw you out of the film experience. Seven Psychopaths did this with its main character: the writer was not interesting, his scenes didn’t add value to the rest of the film, they detracted from the elements that made it good.
These films all have something in common. They try to be something that they are not. In the cases of Hero and The Men Who Stare at Goats, they try to make fancy ideas into film without a substantial story to back them. In the case of Revolver, Rubber and Faster they try to pin deeper meanings to genre-based stories that can’t support that kind of storytelling. In the case of Seven Psychopaths, both elements are true.