For Martin McDonagh, Horror And Everyday Life Are One And The Same

The playwright /director’s work blends the commonplace and the appalling to striking effect.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is coming to theaters. Get your tickets here!

KATURIAN: I thought you were supposed to take me next door first and I put it on in there?

TUPOLSKI: No, no, we shoot you in here. I was just mucking around. Just kneel down over there somewhere, so you don’t splash me.

- The Pillowman, Act Three

Whatever else there is to say about Martin McDonagh as a writer, let it never be said that he shies away from the grisly and the violent. Consider In Bruges (2007), his feature film debut. It has violence to go around. Several people get shot. Colin Farrell’s Ray beats up some Canadians, angrily mistaking them for Americans. Brendan Gleeson’s Ken, mortally wounded by Ralph Fiennes’ Harry, tosses himself off a clock tower in a noble, doomed attempt to save Ray from Harry’s wrath.

To keep going, jump art forms and take a look at some of McDonagh’s theatrical work. The Pillowman (2003) follows the interrogation and ultimate execution of a writer confessing to a series of brutal child killings in a dystopia. The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), McDonagh’s debut, sees a dysfunctional, abusive mother/daughter relationship degenerate to the point of torture and murder.

On film and on stage, it cannot be denied that McDonagh tells violent stories. But McDonagh isn’t just using carnage for shock value or a narrative crutch. Throughout his career, he has contrasted the horrific deeds committed by his characters with the reliable normality of the world around them. By doing so, McDonagh not only crafts superb and supremely bleak comedy, he lays the groundwork for tragedy and genuine moral observation.

Death and violence are frequent in McDonagh’s works, but not necessarily in the worlds of the work themselves. Ray and Ken, of In Bruges, are hitmen, and their boss Harry is a crime lord. But while they themselves are violent men, they do not rule the world of the film. The city of Bruges is not a haven for scum and villainy, it’s a beautiful and beautifully preserved historic city, filled with far more tourists than underworld-types. Throughout the picture, Ray (reluctantly) and Ken (quite happily) join vacationers for cathedral tours and read pamphlets outlining the city’s history. They aren’t staying at a safe house Harry built specifically to stash hitmen in post assignment, they’re staying in a rather lovely hotel. At the same time the hitmen are hiding out in crowds and arguing about how much time Ray spends in the pub, a movie’s being made. Ray and Ken are criminals who, in theory, kill for a living. The world of In Bruges does not stop to acknowledge this, or to treat its protagonists like empty vessels for someone’s power fantasy. Bruges remains Bruges, even though Ray accidentally killed a child while assassinating a priest and Harry has ordered Ken to kill Ray in retaliation for the kid’s death.

Ray, trapped in a city whose old-world beauty and relative lack of pubs provoke something close to an allergic reaction, has no escape from the immutable fact of his crime. He was at the church to put an end to a priest who had made an enemy out of Harry. He had a cool one-liner and everything. But neither the priest nor his confessional were meant to stop a bullet, and after passing through both, that bullet had to go somewhere. Ray killed a child. He killed a child and he is trapped in a town with cobblestone streets and perfectly preserved buildings. There is nothing here to take his mind off what he’s done. His only friend has thrown himself into tourism, and has insisted on dragging Ray with him, perhaps to take his mind off his murder. It doesn’t work. However cool Ray thought he was, whatever glamor the job afforded him, he’s spent the entire trip with the truth of what he is staring him in the soul. It takes its toll. And all the while, Bruges remains Bruges.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, in The Pillowman, murder is so ordinary for cops Ariel and Tupolski that, when the time comes for them to execute Katurian, their prisoner, they constantly waffle between messing with him and being upfront about his impending death. They’re more concerned about not getting Katurian’s blood on their clothes than they are with the fact that they’re about to end a life. Tupolski promises Katurian that he’ll count down from 10 before shooting, and promptly breaks that promise by killing him when he gets to ‘4.’ This exchange follows:

ARIEL: Oh what did you do that for?

TUPOLSKI: What did I do what for?

ARIEL: You said you’d give him ten. That wasn’t very nice.

TUPOLSKI: Ariel, what exactly is nice about shooting a man on his knees with a bag on his head?

ARIEL: Even so.

The Pillowman closes with Katurian trying to imagine an appropriate end for his story: Tupolski and Ariel, having disposed of him, burn or otherwise dispose of everything he has ever written. But he dies before he can think of the burning itself. Tupolski, in fact, chooses to preserve Katurian’s work and seal it away in his file. He doesn’t do this for anything other than a private whim. If it’s a reaction to how desensitized he’s become from violence, he doesn’t recognize it as such. It’s just normal for him. Horrifyingly normal.

Three Billboards is lower key in concept than either of the works I’ve discussed here – Mildred Hayes isn’t an assassin stuck in a beautiful city she can’t stand, she’s a parent demanding justice for her murdered daughter. Ebbing isn’t a hellish dystopia where summary executions are commonplace, it’s a town that has history its residents fear addressing. Yet, it is very much of a piece with McDonagh’s older works, winding brutality in and alongside the ever-turning world, to build a coherent picture of humanity from its worst to its best.

Get your tickets to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri here.