TIFF 2012: Argo, Seven Psychopaths
Posted on Saturday September 8, 2012, 19:22 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
Ben Affleck makes it three for three with Argo, an extraordinary true story, set in the late 70s, about a plan by the American government to free six diplomatic workers hiding out in Iran after armed, revenge-seeking, Ayatollah-sanctioned revolutionaries stormed the embassy there. Taking another giant stride after The Town, it is a broad but still intimate story that captures an extraordinary time with a lot of credibility; the 70s fashions are unavoidably distracting, but Affleck nevertheless creates an authentic world that always feels fresh and never retro. Once again, he is the lead, this time playing CIA man Tony Mendez, who is brought in after such brilliant ideas as sending in spies with bicycles have been floated and found wanting. Mendez has an even more impractical brainstorm, but this is the best bad idea in a very, very, very bad bunch.
Mendez's plan is to arrive in Tehran with a punch of fake passports, pick up the six – who are hiding out at the Canadian ambassador's house – and convince the authorities there that these people are actually part of a Canuck film crew, scouting locations for a Middle Eastern-themed sci-fi movie called Argo. As a cover story, it is pretty thin, so Mendez goes to Hollywood, hires a producer (Alan Arkin), a make-up effects guy (John Goodman), and actually founds a production company to launch the film, complete with cocktail party, public read-through and a two-page announcement in Variety. From there, the plot becomes more serious, with Mendez flying to Tehran solo, knowing he will be disavowed if caught, with the lives of six terrified people in his hands.
Set in three locations – Washington, Tehran and Hollywood – the film makes a beautiful job of juggling laughs and real drama. Arkin and Goodman are hysterical, Arkin in particular as the flash, bullshitting Lester Siegel, whose wiseguy patter trips effortlessly from his tongue. But Affleck does a tremendous job of anchoring things, making a plausible hero and, subtly, giving a laidback charm to a film that, at its heart, is about peaceful resolution over force. There are sops to the multiplex that don't quite work, since Mendez has a “problem” with a bottle of whiskey that he barely makes a dent in, and a somewhat sentimental subplot involving his young son, whose love of fantasy movies sets the ball rolling, is a little twee. But this is good, exciting grown-up entertainment, not quite 70s in the cool Godfather/Conversation sense, but certainly in that era's definition of warm and human, with great performances, palpable thrills and an intelligent subtext to offset the often gleeful profanity. Another fine movie: let's hope there are more like this to follow.
Likewise, Martin McDonagh is now two for two with Seven Psychopaths (pictured), a funny, dirty and very, very violent comedy that tilts at serious themes (as did In Bruges, but in a different way) and does so with a messy, irreverent, gung-ho energy. Like McDonagh's debut, this is a story about taking responsibility, since it stars Colin Farrell as a struggling Irish screenwriter who wants to have it all, in terms of commercial success and artistic integrity Marty has a script called Seven Psychopaths, or rather, he has a title for a script called Seven Psychopaths, since he has never progressed beyond a series of lurid skits. Marty's best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who runs a dognapping racket with the amiable Hans (Christopher Walken), tries to jolly him out of his writer's block wtth a series of bizarre and very funny ruses, but when Billy steals a dog belonging to a notorious gangster (Woody Harrelson), all their outlandish, blood-soaked flights of fancy start to seem very pale indeed.
Unlike In Bruges, with its refined, baroque interiors, Seven Psychopaths takes place in the wide-open, sunlit plains of Russ Meyer's California, with a story that borders on the cartoonish and definitely has a flavour of the theatrical. Generously, Farrell plays the Brendan Gleeson character this time round, the serious(ish) foil to Rockwell's Tasmanian Devil-like Billy, his restless, artless and possibly even quite beautifully naïve best friend. Rockwell has the juiciest lines to deliver here, from a script that is laugh-out-loud hilarious, bordering on farce but always pulling itself back from the brink. Equally fantastic is Christopher Walken, whose smile alone deserves special mention, a luminescent, infectious grin that drops to a stone-cold snarl in the space of a heartbeat.
The joyous, carefree savagery may not be to all tastes, but even thrill-seeking gorehounds may be disappointed to find that McDonough's isn't simply a guilt-free pleasure. Seven Psychopaths critiques itself all the while that it delivers the goods, asking us if, really, shouldn't we be watching something better for us, something far more nutritious and edifying? The fact that it answers that question with a big fat echoing NO!!!! is both funny and food for thought, a sleight of hand that much more experienced directors have struggled with and never pulled off as effectively as this.