Let’s face it: Americans love violence. We really do. We will collectively fork over a hundred million dollars to watch Liam Neeson shoot Albanians, even though the movie he is in is terrible. Shredded torsos, torn-off limbs, explosions and a general lack of regard for the sanctity of human life are our blissful opiate. And I say this not in judgment, but as someone who also must admit to loving onscreen bodily harm more than is perhaps appropriate. What’s important is that we can somehow channel fictional violence into something positive. Most of the time, movies aren’t going to help us do that. But Seven Psychopaths is different. Writer/director Martin McDonagh is endlessly fascinated both by violence and our affinity for it, and this film is a whip-smart and incredibly funny look at both.

This is almost an essay on death as a cheap solution for cinematic conflict. After all, the main character is a screenwriter named Marty (played by Colin Farrell) who is writing a movie called Seven Psychopaths, and wants it to be about psychopaths who aren’t killers. Unfortunately, he soon finds himself surrounded by such folk. His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) makes a living stealing dogs and then having Hans (Christopher Walken) return them for reward money. When they inadvertently take the beloved pet of unhinged gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), they and Marty soon find themselves in over their heads trying to avoid his swath of murderous retribution. All along, Marty is finding inspiration for his script, and the characters find ways to comment on how things generally work out in crime films versus what’s actually happening to them.

McDonagh continues his winning streak from Six Shooter and In Bruges here, with a film that has terrific humor and great pathos in equal measure. The story curves inward on itself thematically, as its characters are all to some degree aware of the story they’re in. The way it makes fun of Hollywood convention is brilliant, and often its best source of comedy. There’s one incredible sequence around the middle of the movie, in which Billy describes his ideal ending to their plight, which skewers cinematic cliches with gusto. It’s ridiculous and thematically ugly and completely spot-on, and it’s one of my favorite scenes from any film this year.

The movie’s secret weapons are Rockwell and Walken. Billy is basically a caricature of the typical action movie fan, or rather the kind of person it must take to truly enjoy the kind of stuff we typically see in action movies. He’s sociopathic and heedlessly stupid, and also strangely lovable. Rockwell forcibly takes control of the film as it goes on, as Billy stubbornly works to make sure that everything comes to the bloody head he’s envisioned, in the face of all sense and logic. Walken, meanwhile delivers a career best performance. Hans’s deadpan unflappability might not be much of a stretch for the actor, but he sells it perfectly. More importantly, there’s an achingly sympathetic soul to Hans, who becomes the heart of the story.

The movie bounces from one scenario to another with breathless unpredictability. Nothing about it concedes to narrative ease, right down to the fact that it isn’t really clear who the Seven Psychopaths are supposed to be. It sure isn’t the seven you’ve seen in the marketing, and the movie itself contradicts its lineup with a knowing wink. There’s a whole subplot about a Vietnamese priest that purposefully refuses to make any kind of sense for most of the run time. The fact that the film remains wholly enjoyable throughout all this tomfoolery is a testament to McDonagh and the cast’s greatness. While Rockwell and Walken are the shining stars, Farrell, Harrelson, and Tom Waits as a rabbit-loving serial killer all ably back them up.

In fact, the movie’s only problem is that it’s own cleverness sometimes seems to trip it up. For instance, it makes fun of the “you can never kill animals, only women” rule, yet also follows it. Despite that wonderful parody of typical action climaxes, it ends with something like that. It’s unclear whether this itself is part of the joke, but it feels murky.

But Seven Psychopaths gets so much so right that such issues feel like quibbles. It’s one of the best, best-written movies of the year, for sure. McDonagh mocks our hunger for death with a loving wink, and it’s deliriously entertaining. It might be too much for some people to keep up with, but those people are the Billys of the world.