Villains throughout history have had pets. It's an easy way to humanize them, so that they're not just mustache-twisting caricatures. Sometimes they're a source of sympathy for the audience, as with How the Grinch Stole Christmas' melancholic dog Max, resigned to a life of thankless servitude to the cause of holiday hatred. Other times they're more along the lines of henchmen, like Ursula's Flotsam and Jetsam in The Little Mermaid.
The true expert on villains and their pets is Martin McDonagh, the playwright-turned-screenwriter-director. McDonagh's Broadway play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which went up in 2010 at Mark Taper Forum starring Chris Pine, is about the leader of an IRA-like terrorist organization who tears off for home after he hears his cat is sick.
His new movie Seven Psychopaths, which came out Friday, doubles down on the fury-meets-furry motif. The pet shih tzu of a gangster (Woody Harrelson) gets taken by a dog-nappers (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken), and Harrelson spends most of the film trying to retrieve her. In addition, another of the titular psychopaths, played by Tom Waits, carries around a rabbit. The film even pays a brief visit to the Zodiac Killer, whose wall is adorned with a huge cat photo (“I picked that cat poster myself,” McDonagh says).
Yes, these animals obsessions humanize the villains, as McDonagh acknowledges. But it's even more about the comedy — “the absurdity of someone who can kill 100 people and cares so much about his pet,” he says.
It's also a bit of Hollywood commentary. “[It] allows you to explore that Hollywood thing of how you can't kill the dog, but can kill 100 women in a film, which I'm against, even though I do it in the film” (not 100 women, but some). This kind of meta-statement especially makes sense in this film, which revolves around one of the dog-napper's friends, a screenwriter named Marty (Colin Farrell) who is trying to write a movie called Seven Psychopaths. (Marty also, for instance, grapples with the criticism that his female characters tend not to be not very strong, and McDonagh has acknowledged that the same is true of this movie and his previous one, In Bruges).
Originally in the script, Sam Rockwell's dog-napper character did kill the dog, but McDonagh took it out. “There's a decency to that character, so it wouldn't be true to them or the film to go down that route,” he says.
A villain's love of animals also speaks to what McDonagh calls the “sentimentality of violent men,” a theme that is especially prominent in the way Inishmore satirizes the self-righteousness of terrorist organizations like the IRA.
“It's more about the absurdity of the lack of respect for life that men who are supposedly waging a political war can accept,” he says. Their caring for a cat over human life parallels their favoring of the cause over humanity as a whole. “So the whole cat thing in that is to poke fun of the sentimentality of terrorism. In this [Seven Psychopaths], it's more of a fun, quirky, Hollywood setup.”
McDonagh is no animal hater — he's actually the opposite. The main impetus for Inishmore was the story of McDonagh's own cat, whom he at first temporarily called Pussy, only for the name to stick. When he moved to a “crappy high-rise” in London where it would be hard to keep a cat, he sent Pussy (a male, by the way) to live with his parents in Ireland. One day his mom called to say the cat was sick, which got him worried. She'd call back every so often with updates. “The cat was already dead for months at this point,” he says. The same story takes place in Inishmore.
“Maybe I just like working with animals,” he adds. “I love the rabbits in this [film]. The rabbit scenes are almost more fun than any of the others.”
McDonagh says he probably won't kill any pets in his films — at least not again. He had a rabbit blown away in his short film, Six Shooter.
“You expect no one to ever see a short film, so that was an easy one,” he says.
The film won him an Oscar.