I’ve been drowning under work so haven’t posted for a while but I was inspired to put fingers to keyboard in response to seeing Martin McDonagh‘s film Seven Psychopaths – a shootem-up film with just enough of a difference to make it worthy of post. It’s the kind of film that I usually avoid but a trailer in which Christopher Walken’s character quotes from Ghandi and an interview with writer-director McDonagh in the Guardian made me give it a go. I’m really glad I did because as well as being really entertaining it made me think, so in this post I ask how far it’s possible to give such a violent film a progressive gender politics.
The first problem is that there’s an extreme lack of substantial female characters. In terms of the Bechdel test it gets just above the baseline grading on account of featuring two women characters – I can remember five. However, only one of these gets more than two scenes and she (Maggie the only female psychopath, played by Amanda Mason Warren) doesn’t get to say anything at all. This is par for the course in mainstream movies, outside the arthouse circuit only teen comedies like Easy A and melodramas like The Help seem to regularly feature multiple female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man, and so pass the Bechdel test.
However, McDonagh’s neat trick of centring the film on a screenwriter Marty (who shares McDonagh’s Irish heritage and his first name, played brilliantly by Colin Farrell) who’s working on a screenplay for a film also called Seven Psychopaths. This means that the film can, as Alex Godfrey points out in his interview with McDonagh, at least draw attention to its weakness when
Christopher Walken’s dognapper chides Farrell’s screenwriter for writing crappy female characters. I ask McDonagh if this is another dig at Hollywood, a statement he had planned from the start, or if he just stuck it in to let himself off the hook. “The latter!” he laughs. There’s no argument. “Yeah. It was fun, but it’s a kind of easy Get Out Of Jail Free card to say that in the middle of the film. It would have been better to write some better women characters and not have them die.”
I tend to agree with McDonagh here. It would be better to write well-rounded female characters who are important to the action, but at least he felt the need to problematise how his work represents women and apparently the lead character in his next film is a 55 year-old woman. Let’s hope he doesn’t think this is enough and then surround her with men.
Second, there’s the violence. Here, McDonagh is similarly self-effacing:
I wasn’t trying to say that violence in film is bad, it’s not about a need to change. But I would find it impossible to do a film about gangsters with guns that was just that and didn’t question it. I would find it crass to do something empty. Coming from here [in the UK], we don’t see guns on the streets, it is odd, and it’s not odd over there, and I think it’s good to say that it is odd that every film is about a man with a gun.
But here I think he does himself a disservice. I’ve posted before about gender and violence noting the relationship between militarism and masculinity generally and in specific the context of education. In terms of film, it’s really, really difficult to find pacifist characters – I know this from a recent session I introduced at the London Pacifism and Nonviolence Discussion Group. Some indie arthouse films, such as Sally Potter’s wonderful Ginger & Rosa, do but not mainstream movies. Thus, it’s at least a little wonderful that Marty, who’s at the heart of McDonagh’s film, is a pacifist writing a violent film. Indeed as Eric Samuelson (aka Mormon Iconoclast) points out, it’s possible to understand Marty as the only character in the film and to view the others as “projections of his own personality” as he grapples with the dilemmas his screenplay raises for him.
Obviously this is entertainment – it’s not Michael Hanneke’s Funny Games, where the sole purpose of the film is to draw attention to mediated violence and our implication in it – but that’s one of the toughest films I’ve ever sat through and not something that’s going to get a mass audience. Also I know people have been put off by the didacticism of Funny Games so perhaps a lighter touch may be more effective.
Given the tensions being lived by Marty, McDonagh’s set himself a challenge in coming up with an ending. As someone who struggles to write conclusions I’m always impressed by endings that don’t bottle it – McDonagh’s is I think remarkable. I won’t give it away but, as Alan Scherstul writes, he comes up with something that “satisfies the impossible screenwriting goals Farrell’s Marty aspires to early in the film: violent, pacifist, and somehow life-affirming”. I’m still thinking about this a day later – that’s not bad for under a tenner.
Brunel University, UK