At the age of just 26 or 27, writer/director Mickey Keating already has five feature films under his belt. These aren’t just homemade backyard projects shot with his buddies for $200, either; these are movies with major stars of the indie horror scene (Graham Skipper, Lauren Ashley Carter, Pat Healy, Larry Fu**ing Fessenden) and getting actual distribution through companies like Glass Eye Pix and IFC Midnight. While his previous films have shown major chops behind the camera, they’ve also all had an air of familiarity about them; Keating is a director who wears his influences proudly, and some of his past work has played more like him riffing on an existing piece than like something borne of his own interests and obsessions.
With his fifth feature, Psychopaths, Keating has really come into his own as a director. It is his most original, most ambitious, most audacious work to date—a challenging film that demands you to get on its wavelength and refuses to hold your hand. While Keating is still honest and reverential about his influences, be they Brian De Palma, Ken Russell, or David Lynch, he has synthesized them in a way that feels unique and exciting even beyond the usual excitement of his work. Psychopaths is trippy and colorful, propulsive and funny and altogether uncompromising. This feels like the movie he’s been building towards in his career to this point.
The story, as it were, is kind of like Richard Linklater’s Slacker if every character in it was a homicidal maniac. Psychopaths opens with the execution of notorious serial killer Henry Starkweather, played by Larry Fessenden in a completely bonkers performance—he practically foams at the mouth as he monologues his way into oblivion. He threatens that by executing him, it will release a wave of violence the likes of which the world has never seen. And so it goes in Los Angeles over the course of a single night: a psychotic strangler (James Landry Hébert) claims victims until he crosses the path of someone even more monstrous (played by Angela Trimbur). A woman afflicted with multiple personalities (played by Ashely Bell, Keating’s star in Carnage Park) lives in an idyllic 1950s musical fantasy until the illusion breaks and she commits murder. A masked murderer (played silently by horror journalist-turned-Shudder curator Samuel Zimmerman) racks up a body count until an unhinged police officer (Jeremy Gardner, the director/star of The Battery) makes it his business to stop him.
Psychopaths takes a bunch of insane, dangerous, and violent forces and sets them all in motion against one another, stepping back and observing as their encounters inevitably end in brutality and bloodshed. This is a movie about systems breaking down and when, in the words of that Antichrist fox, “chaos reigns.” While Mickey Keating’s work has primarily existed to comment on other movies to this point, there’s something exciting about seeing him write and direct a film about a world spinning out of control at a time when the world feels like it’s spinning out of control. I won’t explicitly suggest that Psychopaths is Keating’s direct response to 2017 America, but goddamn if it doesn’t feel like it is.
The narrative of the film never adds up to much—narrator Jeff Daniel Phillips even apologizes for as much during the movie’s closing moments in a touch that feels right out of a Coen Brothers’ movie—but the power of Psychopaths isn’t derived from its narrative. The power is in the sensory experience. The photography (by Mac Fisken), the editing (by Valerie Krulfeifer), the score (by Cemeteries), and even the sound design (by Shawn Duffy and Eric Miller) are the best I’ve seen in any of Keating’s work, which is really saying something because his movies have all had gorgeous pictures and sound. Keating’s experiment with form results in a film that is at once hypnotic, hallucinatory, and horrifying: an abstract nightmare of black comedy and madness
Madness has always interested Mickey Keating as a filmmaker, whether it’s the “is he or isn’t he crazy?” question at the center of Pod, the solitary madness of Darling, or the sweaty desert madness that explodes into violence in Carnage Park.
Psychopaths is his wildest, most exciting exploration of madness to date, offering a terrific ensemble of indie horror all-stars and some truly dazzling filmmaking. Whether or not you’re a fan of Mickey Keating, whether or not you wind up loving the movie or hating it, Psychopaths demands to be seen. It’s a trip.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
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