In 1994, a 24-year-old Irishman living in London quit his job at the Department of Trade and Industry and dedicated his mornings to writing plays and his afternoons to watching soap operas. Seven months later, Martin McDonagh had written nine nasty, brutish comedies, mostly about hicks, retards and lunatics in rural Ireland. Three years later, McDonagh was a star, the first writer since Shakespeare to have four plays running in London simultaneously.
His plays are commonly described as a fusion of J.M. Synge and Quentin Tarantino: In The Lonesome West, a son kills his father for insulting his hair. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a spinster beats her mother to death with a poker. In The Pillowman—staged last year by Montana Rep Missoula—a cheery little girl who believes she’s Jesus is crucified on stage. The Broadway production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore—about an enforcer for the Irish National Liberation Army and the assassination of his cat—required six gallons of stage blood every night.
McDonagh’s violence is grotesque, but not gratuitous; he has more of Flannery O’Connor than Tarantino about him. And his writing is artfully visceral—people at a London performance of Leenane actually shouted “don’t do it!” while the spinster burned her mother with boiling oil. Yet, somehow, his grisly scenes are never far from tipping into comedy.
One might expect McDonagh’s first feature film to be a bloodbath. Two Irish hit men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, both casually manful) are ordered to hide out in Bruges, Belgium, after Farrell’s character assassinates a priest. Things are not what they seem, loyalties are tested, blah blah blah, and soon gangsters are running around the medieval city, shooting at one other. But In Bruges is less violent than McDonagh’s plays. It’s also less dark and less funny—less of everything, really, perhaps because the pacing of movies doesn’t suit McDonagh’s gifts. The horrible, gothic comedy he can build over a 20-minute scene is thinned out in the quick jumps of film. But the comparisons to Tarantino are more apt than ever—In Bruges has cocaine, a dwarf and exciting chase scenes and, despite its shortcomings, it is still smarter and richer than any gangster film you’re likely to see anytime soon.