Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!
Instead of putting together a post about the “Greatest Irish Movies” or something like “The 10 Best Movies about Green Things,” I think it’d be more rewarding to take a closer look at my favorite Irish filmmaker. Martin McDonagh, primarily a playwright, has only made two films to date, the Oscar-winning short “Six Shooter” and 2008’s Oscar-nominated feature “In Bruges” but they’re both fantastic. His mastery of the dark comedy is unequaled in contemporary cinema, and watching his work is a hilarious and disturbing experience.
“Six Shooter” is how I discovered him, thanks to the availability granted short films once they’re up for the Oscar. Brendan Gleeson sits on a train, mourning the recent death of his wife, faced with an entirely unstable and completely riotous fellow passenger, played by Rúaidhrí Conroy. In the space of half an hour, McDonagh meditates on death and mourning in the least meditative fashion imaginable, and manages to shock you and make you laugh at precisely the same moment.
There’s an absurdity in his dialogue, clearly derived from his writing for the theater, which has a very distinctive kick. Peppered with more swearing than an early Tarantino flick, Conroy’s speech seems to be going in five different directions at once, a stream of consciousness moving so quickly it often seems to bypass its own speaker, taking on a life of its own. Yet at the same time, there are moments that feel as if they have incredible clarity, despite being on the surface completely incomprehensible; the anecdote about the cow with trapped wind, for one. Give it a look, here it is:
As for “In Bruges,” now that’s just something else. Brendan Gleeson, first of all, is the perfect actor for McDonagh’s work on film. The balance achieved between Gleeson and Colin Farrell here, like that between Gleeson and Conroy in the short, is dependent upon the older actor serving as a formidable anchor. He’s a mountain of stoicism, though at the same time just as deeply human as his frenzied and visibly suffering counterparts. His delivery is also excellent, which of course is crucial when working with such brilliant dialogue.
The balance of McDonagh’s very specific conception of the buddy comedy relationship is the foundation of these two films. Colin Farrell as the loose cannon, broken down by his own acts of violence (like Conroy in “Six Shooter”), appears as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders and his only way of coping is to talk fast and act out as much as possible. This puts him at odds with the entire rest of the world (or Bruges, as the case may be), except his partner in crime and the girl he meets, played by the wonderful Clémence Poésy. He gets into fights with obese Americans, angry Canadians, and just about everyone else wandering around the city; and yet McDonagh is sure that we always take his side. Other people are generally just kind of insufferable, in a dumb sort of way, and we can feel the frustration of his protagonists with the uptight masses.
I have more to say, but really you should just watch the films. If you haven’t seen “In Bruges,” get on that. It’s an Academy Award nominee! (for Best Original Screenplay, which frankly was the most exciting Oscar surprise of the past few years) His theater work is also brilliant, and he’s the only playwright other than Shakespeare to have had three shows playing in London’s West End at the same time. Granted, that’s in part because he’s written mostly trilogies, but it’s quite a staggering accomplishment nonetheless. I had the privilege of seeing his most recent play “A Behanding in Spokane,” starring Christopher Walken, on Broadway last year and was blown away. His most successful work is “The Pillowman,” which is also probably the darkest thing he’s written; it gets produced a lot by repertory companies and college theater programs, so if it’s being done near you go see it.
And because I can’t resist, here’s a great clip from the beginning of “In Bruges.” Happy St. Patrick’s Day!