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Bloodied Light: The cinema of Martin McDonagh




By Marshall Botvinick.

‘I’m sorry,’ says a somber doctor just as the opening credits for Six Shooter(2005), Martin McDonagh’s first film, dissolve. For a playwright known for his remorseless characters, it is a surprising way to begin a cinematic career, and it sends a clear signal to his viewers that the characters in his movies will bear little resemblance to the heartless ones found in his plays. If, as Aleks Sierz suggests, a ‘pessimism about humanity’ (2001: 219) runs through McDonagh’s plays, then McDonagh’s two films, Six Shooter (a twenty-seven-minute short that went on to win an Oscar in 2006) and In Bruges(2008), are notable for their surprising faith in human goodness and virtue. What accounts for this radical transformation in McDonagh’s point of view? Perhaps it is simply the inevitable maturation of a writer who produced the vast majority of his theatrical corpus in his early 20s; however, it is more likely that a shift in medium has forced McDonagh to alter his dramaturgy, and nowhere is this change more apparent than in his treatment of violence and character.

Despite revamping his writing to fit the screen, McDonagh still utilizes many of the same tricks and plot devices found in his plays. Both his plays and films feature characters trapped in small, self-contained worlds. In his plays those settings include the remote Irish countryside, a prison in a totalitarian state, and an American hotel room in the middle of nowhere. In Six Shooter and In Bruges those locations are the interior of a train and an idyllic medieval town respectively. In almost all of these places, McDonagh’s characters rely on violence and inane bickering to overcome the tedium of isolation and confinement. As Richard Russell notes, bickering between ‘characters who argue endlessly over petty objects and rehash old arguments with disturbing ferocity is an essential component of McDonagh’s work’ (2007: 1). Certainly this description applies to In Bruges’ Ray and Ken, who fight about everything from karate to the proper way to sightsee.

McDonagh’s films, like his plays, also employ what Joan FitzPatrick Dean describes as ‘a chronological, suspense-driven narrative through a representational dramaturgy in which the audience experiences multiple reversals’ (2007: 31). Among the ‘dramatic clichés’ that Dean observes in McDonagh’s plays are undying revenge, sudden reversals, and mistaken identity (27). These devices are just as common in McDonagh’s cinema; for example, in Six Shooter Donnelly’s suicide appears to be inevitable, but in a dramatic reversal of fate, Donnelly’s gun mistakenly goes off and discharges his last bullet. Sudden reversals play an even more prominent role in In Bruges, which has at least four major plot twists. Beginning with Ken’s aborted attempt on Ray’s life, McDonagh creates a series of expected outcomes only to steer the plot in a completely different direction: Ray is safe on a train departing Bruges when the Canadian he bloodied in the restaurant spots him, resulting in Ray’s return to dangerous Bruges; Ken and Harry reconcile in the bell-tower only to become adversaries again when they learn that Ray is outside in the market square; and finally, Harry is poised to kill Ray when he accidentally shoots Jimmy the dwarf, mistakes him for a child, and subsequently takes his own life. By consistently eschewing the most likely outcome and undermining the audience’s expectations, McDonagh keeps his viewers guessing and consequently engaged.

In addition to subverting his audience’s expectations, McDonagh, like many postmodern writers, refuses to give his audience any sense of closure. At the conclusion of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, spectators are left wondering whether or not Mairead will make good on her intimations and return to kill Donny and Davey. Likewise, Marion Castleberry asks, ‘What will happen to Maureen [after the conclusion of The Beauty Queen of Leenane]? Will she use her newfound freedom to build a happier, more fulfilled life, or will she become, as Ray suggests, “the exact fecking image” of her mother, only lonelier and more isolated?’ (2007: 55-56). Six Shooter and In Bruges prove to be just as inconclusive. The ending of Six Shooter offers no hints about Donnelly’s future. After his failed suicide attempt, he may purchase a bullet and kill himself; or he may not. At the end of In Bruges, Ray’s fate is similarly indeterminate. The audience exits the theatre not knowing whether Ray will survive his gunshot wounds. Thus, McDonagh leaves filmgoers and theatregoers with a gnawing feeling that the story they have watched attentively is still unresolved.

One last trait shared by McDonagh’s theatre and film scripts is the character of the dialogue. As José Lanters observes, McDonagh’s stage characters ‘all speak in short, paratactic sentences and are prone to repetition, banal pronouncements, and stating the obvious’ (2000: 217). Employing a similar dialogical technique are exchanges like this one between the Kid and Donnelly in Six Shooter:

KID: Hey, fella. Why is it you never get tall jockeys?
DONNELLY: Huh?
KID: Why is it you never get tall jockeys? They’re always sort of midgety sort of fellas.
DONNELLY: The weight.
KID: I know the weight. Jesus, the weight. Hey, the weight. But what do you do if you’re a tall fella and you want to be a jockey? It isn’t fair on you. So it isn’t. Me mam always used to tell us that anybody could grow up to be anything they wanted to be. Now in the case of tall fellas who want to be jockeys, that’s patently fucking untrue.
DONNELLY: You could show jump.
KID: You could show jump? You’re just grasping at fucking straws now. You could show jump. Jesus. You could show jump.

And this speech of Ray’s:

‘A lot of midgets tend to kill themselves. Yes. A disproportionate amount. Herve Villechaize, off of Fantasy Island. I think somebody off the Time Bandits. A hell of a lot of midgets. Kill  themselves. I guess they must get really sad about, like, being really little, and that. People  looking at them, and laughing at them. Calling them names. ‘Shortarse’. There’s another famous midget I’m missing but I can’t remember. It’s not the R2D2 man, he’s still going. No, it’s somebody else. (Pause.) I hope your midget doesn’t kill himself.’ (McDonagh 2008a: 15)

This style, which focuses on the comic and the petty, disarms audiences, often rendering them oblivious to the small verbal cruelties as well as the large acts of violence occurring before their very eyes. There is no better example of this than the scene in which Ken and Yuri argue about the proper usage of the word alcoves while an emotionally tortured Ken selects the gun that he will use to murder Ray. By bifurcating the language and the action of the scene, McDonagh toys with the audience’s emotions, producing a complex reaction of mirth and pathos.

Despite sharing certain dramaturgical strategies, there are still fundamental differences between McDonagh’s stage work and film work – differences that, when analyzed, can help illuminate the ethical aims of McDonagh’s writing in each medium. When writing about McDonagh’s work in the theatre, scholars and critics consistently note that his plays contain visceral scenes that ‘draw audiences in by their immediacy, an immediacy that film, McDonagh’s most influential source, cannot achieve’ (Russell 2007: 5). Speaking about British playwriting in the 1990s, Aleks Sierz observes that many writers from this period utilize the live elements of theatre, such as the close proximity between the performers and the audience, to unsettle those watching the spectacle. He maintains, ‘Theatre can be a place that conveys a strong sense of territorial threat and of the vulnerability of the audience’s personal space. Live performance heightens awareness, increases potential embarrassment, and can make the representation of private pain on a public stage almost unendurable’ (2001: 7). Maria Doyle, describing the violent second scene in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, remarks that ‘the audience’s perception of the actor himself and the literal, very present discomfort of his having to play the scene while suspended by the ankles from the ceiling generates greater awareness of the actor… That awareness, however, far from decreasing our investment in the scene, augments it by disturbing the boundaries of theatrical fiction’ (2007: 95). She then goes on to argue that McDonagh’s plays are a conscious experiment with ‘the literal presence of violent action and violent after-effect’ (96).

As a filmmaker, McDonagh can no longer rely upon the literal presence of violence to induce audience discomfort. This does not mean, however, that McDonagh forsakes his chosen task of making the audience uncomfortable. Rather, it means that he must switch tactics in order to accomplish his objective. The result is that, instead of shoving violence in his audience’s face, McDonagh stylizes it. By stylizing violence, McDonagh diminishes its emotional impact on the spectators, making it easier for them to root for and sympathize with the killers on the screen. Thus, viewers at the conclusion of McDonagh’s films are left wondering why they like people who perpetrate horrible crimes. While this response is more cerebral than the visceral responses elicited by McDonagh’s plays, audience members do not necessarily find themselves in a more comfortable position since they now must investigate the curious nature of their own feelings and attitudes.

In The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a character hangs by his ankles while another man holds a knife to his right nipple and threatens to slice it off. In The Cripple of Inishmaan, a grown man brutally clubs a crippled boy with a lead pipe, and in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a daughter viciously scalds her mother’s hand in a pan of sizzling oil. These are just a few of the many acts of violence that take place in McDonagh’s plays. The impact of these gruesome, all too realistic images on the viewer is often nauseating or painful. Conversely, neither Six Shooter nor In Bruges contains images that are likely to make one squeamish. When the Kid fires on the police in Six Shooter, the scene looks like a parody of a shootout between cops and a cowboy; and when the Kid is finally gunned down in slow motion, his body, like a fountain, spouts blood in such a way that the viewer is more taken by the beauty of the shot than the horror of the death.

McDonagh takes this stylized approach even further in In Bruges. After Ray mistakenly murders a little boy, time slows down; and somber piano music plays as the camera pans to the child, who, while missing a small chunk of his head, still looks more like a praying porcelain doll than a bloodied corpse. This aestheticized presentation of death prevents audiences from experiencing the boy’s physical agony and ensures that they will focus instead on the emotional pain of Ray, who quivers over the body. Thus, whereas McDonagh’s plays force the audience to identify with the bodily pain of the victim, his movies put the audience in touch with the psychological pain of the victimizer.

McDonagh also uses certain meta-cinematic techniques to limit his audience’s visceral response to violence. In the final scene of In Bruges, an already wounded Ray staggers onto a misty film set. Surrounded by ghoulishly costumed extras, some of whom ‘have an identical bullet wound to Ray’s’ (McDonagh 2008a: 85), Ray is shot several times by Harry before he slumps to the ground in slow motion. By locating this shooting on a film set where extras bleed like Ray, McDonagh underscores the cinematic nature of the scene. Unlike the immediate nature of McDonagh’s theatre, this technique distances the spectators from the action, increasing the likelihood that they will have cerebral, rather than visceral, reactions to the work.

In addition to stylizing violence, McDonagh’s films, in contrast to his plays, feature characters whose violent acts are motivated by ethical principles, not small grievances. In The Lonesome West, Coleman admits that he murdered his father because his dad insulted his hairstyle; Mairtin, in A Skull in Connemara, claims to have used a glass bottle to gash the faces of two women who refused to dance with him; and in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the death of a cat ignites a killing spree that leaves four dead. When Davey, at the conclusion of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, despairingly asks, ‘So all this terror has been for absolutely nothing’ (2001: 68), McDonagh is decrying a world in which people kill without good reason. This depiction of senseless violence in McDonagh’s plays also serves another purpose: it terrorizes the audience. By populating his plays with individuals who murder and maim anyone and anything, even innocent bystanders, McDonagh challenges his audience’s sense of security.

Filmgoers, on the other hand, never face the possibility of territorial encroachment or personal violation. Consequently, there is less incentive for McDonagh, the filmmaker, to create characters who murder without rhyme or reason; nevertheless, McDonagh still populates his films with murderers. However, they are goodhearted murderers whose acts of violence, for the most part, grow out of a strong sense of right and wrong. Ken, the kindly hit man, muses, ‘I believe in trying to live a good life… At the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile that with the fact that, yes, I have killed people’ (McDonagh 2008a: 25-26). This statement encapsulates the audience’s moral dilemma: what is one to make of good people who do terrible things? Even Harry, ostensibly the real villain of the film, proves himself to be a decent man. Ken praises him for his honor and integrity, and Harry’s dying words, ‘You’ve got to stick to your principles’ (McDonagh 2008a: 86), and subsequent suicide, testify to his moral consistency. Chloe, the magnetic leading lady, presents a similar problem for the audience. As producer Graham Broadbent notes, ‘[She is] a drug dealer who rips off tourists in Bruges, pretends to sleep with them. When all those things stack up, you think, “Eww, not sure I like her.” But the minute you see her on film, you love her’ (When in Bruges 2008). This treatment of character generates a schizophrenic response within the audience. On the one hand, the horrific deeds of the characters repulse those watching the film; on the other hand, the characters’ inner beauty enlists the audience’s love and support.

The aftereffects of guilt also plague the characters of In Bruges. This is in stark contrast to murderers like Michal in The Pillowman, Coleman in The Lonesome West, Maureen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Padraic and Mairead in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. While Michal in The Pillowman remains convinced that he will go to ‘normal heaven’ (McDonagh 2003: 39) even after he has butchered two children, Ray believes in the certainty of his imminent damnation. ‘He’s dead because of me. And I’m trying to… I’m trying to get my head around it, but I can’t,’ Ray says. ‘I will always have killed that little boy. And that ain’t ever gonna go away’ (McDonagh 2008a: 27).

This human response and the inhuman, cavalier responses of characters like Michal and Coleman do not inhabit the same moral universe. Discussing McDonagh’s plays, José Lanters asserts, ‘The characters are largely unaware of the difference between the mundane and the meaningful, the trivial and the tragic’ (2000: 219). The same cannot be said of Ray, Ken, and Harry; for they are characters who spend the entire film attempting to formulate an appropriate moral response to death and tragedy. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Ray silently examines himself in the mirror for nearly a minute. At the end of the scene, his disappointed face reveals that he is unhappy with what he sees. This protracted moment of introspection and self-criticism has no predecessor in McDonagh’s dramatic works.

Another difference between the characters in McDonagh’s plays and films is their respective sense of family. In McDonagh’s plays repeated acts of violence shatter familial relationships. In The Lonesome West and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a child kills his/her parent, and in The Pillowman parents torture their children. Sibling relationships are not any more functional. Valene extorts money from his brother, Coleman, while Coleman systematically destroys Valene’s most prized possessions. Mairead in The Lieutenant of Inishmore demonstrates no more kindness to her brother Davey. She admits that she would ‘[blind him] over a dead cat’ (McDonagh 2001: 18), and on numerous occasions she emasculates him by insulting his feminine hairstyle. She even goes so far as to hold a gun to Davey’s head. This act of would-be fratricide is interrupted only by Christy’s admission that he, not Davey, killed Padraic’s cat.

The characters in McDonagh’s films, on the other hand, are, with few exceptions, family men. Six Shooter features a husband and a wife distraught over the loss of a child. This death is so devastating that it eventually leads to the woman’s suicide. Donnelly, the film’s protagonist, is also in mourning. At the beginning of the film, his wife passes away. Throughout the movie, he struggles to contain his sadness, and in the film’s final moments, his grief over the loss of a loved one brings him to the brink of suicide. Likewise, Ken in In Bruges still mourns his wife’s death thirty years later. He even continues to wear his wedding ring, a sign that he will always think of himself as a husband. Harry, too, is a family man. Although the audience frequently hears his profanity-laden tirades, his first appearance in the film is a tender and apologetic scene with his wife and kids in which he urges his children to ‘be good for your mummy’ (McDonagh 2008a: 61). Furthermore, the only time Harry gets upset with Ken is when Ken insults his children.

These familial ties humanize the characters; however, this humanization yields a complex response in the audience. This is particularly true during In Bruges. As Brendan Gleeson, the actor portraying Ken, points out, ‘The thought is that [the characters] are all too human, and the really disturbing thing about bad human behavior is not that it’s inhuman. It’s the fact that it is ultimately very human’ (When in Bruges 2008). Thus, while McDonagh’s plays unsettle his audience with characters who are incapable of experiencing even the most elemental human connections, his cinema troubles viewers by raising the notion that it is possible to be both a good husband or father and a murderer at the same time.

In his films McDonagh also utilizes a strategic arrangement of scenes to manipulate the audience’s sympathy. Both Six Shooter and In Bruges climax with the gunning down of a murderer; however, these shootings engender sadness, not relief, in the mind of the viewer. When the Kid, a character with few redeeming qualities, dies, Donnelly, a decent man and a character with whom the audience identifies, grieves next to the body. Donnelly’s sadness triggers a sense of loss within the audience. Since audience members are most likely to recognize themselves in Donnelly, they, more often than not, adopt his point of view about the events that they see on the screen. Thus, the Kid’s death produces an irrational grief that directly contradicts most audience members’ sense of morality. The ending of In Bruges generates a similar response, as the horror of death counterbalances the demands of justice. After being shot, Ray vows to make amends with the mother of the boy he killed and to accept whatever punishment she chooses for him. He then concludes the movie with the following line: ‘And I really really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really really hoped I wouldn’t die’ (McDonagh 2008a: 87). This final sentiment places audience members in a terrible moral quandary. Either they must hope for the death of a character whom they have come to care about, or they must root for the survival of a man who shoots people for money. Regardless of what they choose, spectators must confront the moral implications of their decision as well as what their choice says about their particular value system.

There are other smaller differences between McDonagh’s plays and films, such as the specificity and centrality of location in McDonagh’s cinema as opposed to the generality and neutrality of location in McDonagh’s plays. Commenting on McDonagh’s plays, Patrick Lonergan notes that ‘McDonagh provides picture-postcard representations of Ireland that have no purchase on geographical realities’ and that place never ‘corresponds to geographical, political, or social realities’ (2007: 158-59). This observation is at variance with McDonagh’s description of his work on In Bruges:

‘Bruges is such an integral character to the whole piece that if we hadn’t been able to film there I would have scrapped the whole piece… Every single location that I wrote into the script we were actually allowed to film, which is a pretty big deal in any country, to write about 50 locations and be allowed to shoot in 49 of them… It’s very unusual. But I think that Bruges is palpably a character in the piece; and because we were allowed to shoot in every single place, it’s all there.’ (McDonagh 2008b)

Of course, the filmic medium promotes verisimilitude. In the theatre, the stage set will always share a space with the architecture of the auditorium: the seats, the proscenium arch, the aisles, the exit signs, etc. This makes it exceedingly difficult for audiences to believe that what they are watching is happening anywhere other than in a theatre. In movies, however, the action on the screen exists apart from the space inhabited by the viewer. This makes it possible, and perhaps necessary, for the audience to accept that the characters are in a specific location. McDonagh recognizes this difference between the stage and screen, and like any author who is keenly aware of the advantages and disadvantages of different media, he tailors his writing accordingly.

Additional evidence that McDonagh is not simply maturing as a writer, but molding his work to fit a particular venue, can be found through an analysis of A Behanding in Spokane, McDonagh’s only play written after 1994. This play, which premiered in 2009, has much more in common with its author’s dramatic works than it does with its author’s far more recent cinematic endeavors. Of all the characters in McDonagh’s oeuvre, Carmichael, the one-handed racist at the center of A Behanding in Spokane, most resembles Padraic in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Like Padraic, Carmichael has no qualms about torturing anyone who has wronged him; and the sadistic punishments he designs, ‘behandings’ and bondage followed by immolation, are scarcely proportionate to the nature of the victim’s offense. In some cases the victims, such as the children whose hands Carmichael totes around in his suitcase, may not even be guilty of any wrongdoing. Carmichael’s indiscriminate and unwarranted acts of violence stand in opposition to the highly targeted killings carried out by Ray, Ken, and Harry.

Furthermore, unlike the criminals in In Bruges, Carmichael never questions his own actions. He lacks any sense of morality, and this is precisely what makes him dangerous to both the other characters onstage and to the audience. When Carmichael is in the room, anyone, even an audience member who breathes too heavily, can conceivably turn into an unwilling recipient of Carmichael’s irrational and boundless rage. Such a character in the flesh serves as a powerful agent of ‘in-yer-face’ terror. While not the most lovable, Carmichael’s victims, Toby and Marilyn, suffer terrible physical degradations. Chained to a radiator and expecting to be blown apart by an ignited gasoline can, this bickering couple undergoes intense physical and psychological trauma. McDonagh’s audience, just as it does when it witnesses Padraic holding a razor to James’ nipple or Maureen scalding Mag’s hand, experiences tactilely the pain of Toby and Marilyn. Never thought about, because it does not exist, is the mental anguish of Toby and Marilyn’s jailor. And so, A Behanding in Spokane, like McDonagh’s other stage works, induces audience discomfort with the familiar victim-victimizer dichotomy. The victimizer, largely because of his/her unpredictability, frightens the audience. Then, the pain of the onstage victims augments the spectators’ terror as the spectators start to imagine that they too are suffering the ordeals that McDonagh’s characters live through.

Despite transforming his writing to fit the demands of the screen, McDonagh remains a provocateur at heart. His plays unsettle the audience with gore and a darkness that penetrates the deepest recesses of the human spirit, but in his movies a light shines through the blood and darkness. Instead of alleviating the audience’s discomfort, though, this light, too, becomes a source of unease; for it creates moral ambiguity when spectators crave certainty. This ambiguity lingers long after the final credits, forcing audience members into the difficult task of self-criticism.

Marshall Botvinick recently received his M.F.A. in Dramaturgy from the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard. An earlier version of this article was presented at the Northeast Modern Language Association’s 2011 conference.

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References

Castleberry, M., 2007. Comedy and violence in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. In: R.R. Russell, ed. Martin McDonagh: A CasebookNew York: Routledge, pp. 41-59.

Dean, J. F., 2007. Martin McDonagh’s stagecraft. In: R.R. Russell, ed. Martin McDonagh: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, pp. 25-40.

Doyle, M., 2007. Breaking bodies: The presence of violence on Martin McDonagh’s stage. In: R.R. Russell, ed. Martin McDonagh: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, pp. 92-110.

Lanters, J., 2000. Playwrights of the western world: Synge, Murphy, McDonagh. In: S. Watt, E. Morgan, and S. Mustafa, eds. A Century of Irish Drama: Widening the StageBloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, pp. 204-22.

Lonergan, P, 2007. ‘Never mind the shamrocks’ – Globalizing Martin McDonagh. In: R.R. Russell, ed. Martin McDonagh: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, pp. 149-78.

McDonagh, M., 1997. The Cripple of Inishmaan. London: Methuen.

McDonagh, M., 1999. Plays 1 (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, The Lonesome West). London: Methuen.

McDonagh, M., 2001. The Lieutenant of Inishmore. London: Methuen.

McDonagh, M., 2003. The Pillowman. New York: Dramatists Play Services.

McDonagh, M., 2008a. In Bruges: A Screenplay. London: Faber and Faber.

McDonagh, M., 2008b. In Bruges – Martin McDonagh Interview. Interviewed by Rob Carnevale. Accessed 2 February 2011.

McDonagh, M., (in press) A Behanding in Spokane: A Play. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Russell, R. R., 2007. Introduction. In: R.R. Russell, ed. Martin McDonagh: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, pp. 1-8.

Sierz, A., 2001. In-yer-face Theatre: British Drama TodayLondon: Faber and Faber.

When In Bruges, 2008. [DVD Bonus Features for In Bruges] USA: Focus Features.

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