Is 'Seven Psychopaths' being meta or just reinforcing stereotypes?

Sat, Dec 8, 2012, 00:00

Martin McDonagh aims for irony, but watching the audience reaction to his new film is depressing

In 1985 the cartoonist Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel Test when a character in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For queried the mistreatment of women in film. For a movie to pass the test it must fulfill three criteria: (1) It has to have at least two women in it; (2) they must talk to each other; (3) and this must be about something other than a man. The test has since spawned a blog that monitors new releases. Very few films pass the test.

Martin McDonagh’s new film, Seven Psychopaths, has five female characters who never talk to each other, so it passes just one of the Bechdel Test criteria.

This is depressingly normal for a big flick but even more depressing given that Seven Psychopaths, with its brilliant cast and rich dialogue, is meant to send up such stereotypes. It’s a film about a film, with Colin Farrell starring as Marty, a screenwriter who’s trying to write a script called Seven Psychopaths, only to be surrounded by just that. The representation of women is a joke within the film itself, that women exist in movies only to be killed, along with the undercurrent throughout that it’s far less acceptable to kill animals in a film than it is to kill women.

McDonagh is pointing out one of the most offensive crimes in film-making, of course, but in a film that reinforces that sin. Don’t you get it? It’s meta! The joke is on . . . um, someone.

Indeed, McDonagh had his own struggles with studio honchos who thought it was completely unacceptable to kill a dog yet barely batted an eye an women being shot in the stomach. And I get it. I totally get this film. But its self-knowledge doesn’t make its humiliating depictions of women and infantile homophobia any less lame. In stand-up you can get away with making jokes about rape, paedophilia, the Holocaust or whatever you’re having yourself as long as they’re funny, as long as the payoff is greater than the offensiveness. Transfer that test to film and McDonagh fails.

One journalist asked McDonagh about a line in which Christopher Walken’s character, Hans, berates Marty for having awful female characters in his script. Is this a dig at Hollywood, and something the director had planned from the start, or a way of getting him off the hook for making a film in which women are ridiculed and murdered. “The latter!” McDonagh told Alex Godrey of the Guardian with a laugh. “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.” Quite.

Just 12 or 13 of the directors of the United States’ 250 top-grossing films of 2011 were women, according to the Celluloid Ceiling report, and 93 per cent of those films employed fewer than six women as directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers or editors. On screen, only 11 per cent of protagonists in last year’s top 100 films were women.

It’s worth pointing out that Seven Psychopaths has a female coproducer, executive producer, editor, casting director, set decorator, costume designer, make-up department head, production manager, second assistant director, lead graphic designer, sound mix assistant and special-effects assistant among its crew, which is practically a full-blown feminist coup d’etat in film-making terms. But in an industry dominated by men it’s hard to see how the celluloid ceiling can be broken when a film-maker of McDonagh’s calibre chooses to take the low road for laughs.

I watched Seven Psychopaths at a screening mainly attended by people who work in film. With such an audience, the thigh-slapping after every joke would have been drowned out only by the backslapping when an Irish film, or one perceived to be Irish, gets a wide release. The harshest critics of musicians are often the other people in the band. Theatre folk slag their rivals with more ferocity than any critic could conjure. But in the Irish film industry, because it’s so much harder to see a project through to fruition than it is to make an album, play or painting, there’s a sort of omerta that makes it rare for a film to be publicly eviscerated by an industry colleague or critic – Charlie Casanova aside.

McDonagh is remarkably talented. I’m a fan. But I don’t think I’ve experienced a more depressing moment in film this year than a cinemaful of people laughing at the last (of many) “fag” jokes in Seven Psychopaths. I’m sure some people got the bludgeoning “subtlety” of its context, but tell that to those who have the same slurs shouted across the street at them when McDonagh isn’t there to hold up a neon irony sign.

And in an industry with a gender imbalance that makes Leinster House look like Ladyfest, what a pity that a smart film-maker reinforces stereotypes for the sake of a “knowing” joke.

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