Director in Focus: Martin McDonagh

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*Spoilers for In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri below*

Martin McDonagh may have only solidified himself in the Hollywood sphere after his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, won two Oscars in 2018, but his other works are equally as good. What might be surprising to some is that McDonagh also directed In Bruges, which has gradually developed a popular following, and follow-up Seven Psychopaths, a funny, deeply underrated movie.

A consistent theme throughout McDonagh’s work is the moral ambiguity of his characters. In Bruges, his feature-length debut, is about two hitmen, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), instructed to hide out in Bruges after Ray accidentally kills a child on the job. Much of the film establishes Ray and Ken’s almost familial relationship and it is made clear to the audience that Ray isn’t a wholly bad person. Ray is wracked with guilt and near-suicidal because of what happened. This sadness is even clear to the characters – Ken’s anguish at being told to kill Ray himself makes this obvious. The head of their criminal organisation, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), is shown to have a family and doesn’t take the decision to bump off Ray lightly. There are still comedic moments aplenty in In Bruges, like Ray’s hatred of the Belgian city and Harry’s evident anger issues, but at its core the film is a dark comedy about morality. It is also McDonagh’s least complex narrative, so these themes shine through far more openly than in his later films.

Seven Psychopaths is perhaps McDonagh’s least known film, and it features fantastic characters in the form of the titular seven. The identities of these characters shift somewhat throughout, but all seven are morally ambiguous and very odd. The central protagonist Marty (Farrell again) is a writer and alcoholic, rarely seen without a drink, the film’s straight man compared to his bombastic dog-napper friend Billy (Sam Rockwell). Billy causes just about every conflict, often acting in his own self-interest by creating an action movie fantasy for Marty’s screenplay – all against Marty’s wishes. Also involved: serial killers who kill other serial killers, and a vengeful Quaker. McDonagh’s second film is as ridiculous as it sounds, but all of the characters manage to be just as compelling as they are morally grey. It’s clear that Billy is violent and self-centred, but most of what he does is to help Marty out in some perverse way. There’s a weird sense of humanity in these characters, and this discussion complicates the morality of Marty and his friends.

McDonagh’s most recent film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, won the Oscars for Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell). Broadly, Three Billboards is far darker than McDonagh’s previous works. Aggrieved mother Mildred (McDormand) attempts to challenge the police force in her small American town, protesting that they didn’t do enough to catch whoever murdered her teenage daughter. Mildred is the most nuanced character McDonagh has ever written. It is easy to see Mildred as the hero of the story, but her determination to get revenge for her daughter causes problems with her living son. Meanwhile, the certainty in her hatred of the police is betrayed by a heartbreaking moment with the police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). There isn’t really a consistent antagonist: just a murky image of the man that murdered her daughter, one that Mildred chases throughout the film. Even hot-headed, vehemently racist police officer Dixon (Rockwell) finds a problematic kind of redemption. Regardless of each character’s morals, they all want to help Mildred catch her daughter’s killer. Through that, every character finds some absolution.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh is an accomplished filmmaker. His films are entertaining, emotionally complex, and morally grey. There are very few ‘evil’ characters on display, but there are also very few truly good ones. Talking about In Bruges, McDonagh said: “I don’t know if people can be redeemed after the terrible things they do, but I enjoyed asking the question.” This is the question McDonagh is always asking, and one the audience is left to answer.

Watch the trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri below: 

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I'm a second-year History student with a love for film and their posters.

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