The worlds of screenwriter and playwright Martin McDonagh are godless and bleak. What do you expect – he’s Irish. Only 47 years old, McDonagh has been writing award-winning works for more than 20 years.
He started out in theater, writing two trilogies based in Ireland. The first play of his first trilogy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), was nominated for a Best Play Tony award. It centers around the co-dependent relationship between a middle-aged woman and her ailing mother. Sympathies shift from the daughter, whose mother sabotaged her chances at romance, to the mother, whose daughter is verifiably insane and physically abusive. Gallows humor is threaded throughout.
His first non-Irish play was The Pillowman, which could be the sister of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and any Kafka work. Also nominated for a Best Play Tony, Pillowman is a black comedy about a writer who is arrested after several children are murdered by methods described in his children’s books. Part of his backstory is that his parents tortured his brother to inspire him to write darker works, including a story about a man made of pillows who helps children kill themselves to escape an unhappy adulthood. Again, this is a comedy.
McDonagh’s first feature-length film, which he both directed and wrote, was In Bruges (2008). Continuing his beginner’s luck of the Irish, McDonagh was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar and won the BAFTA award for the same category. In Bruges stars Colin Farrell as Ray, a hit man who accidentally kills a child during a hit. He and fellow hit man Ken (Brendan Gleeson) escape their vengeful boss in Bruges, Belgium, which, to Ray, is a fate worse than death.
His newest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, continues in the vein of his previous works. For starters, the story centers around the gruesome death of someone’s child, albeit a teenage child. There is a strained relationship between a mean, old mother and single adult child. The authorities are a winning combination of inept and cruel. Victims and predators switch roles. And there are laugh-out-loud moments within painful crises.
It’s pretty impressive how well-received McDonagh’s works are given how cruel they are. Good guys lose, bad guys win, and characters don’t always transform. At the end of any McDonagh story, it’s hard to tell whether anything has changed, in fact. What saves his works from being unbearable is his mixture of pathos and humor. He puts characters in situations that inspire both empathy and hilarity such that they easily provoke tears and laughter. It’s fitting that in Three Billboards, one character mentions Oscar Wilde; McDonagh’s writing bears more than a passing resemblance.