Irish director Martin McDonagh made the jump from acclaimed playwright to celebrated director seemingly with ease. Following the release of his widely praised Oscar contender The Banshees of Inisherin, this feels like the perfect time to look back on McDonagh’s impressive career with a critical eye. Whether it’s the ghoulish humour of In Bruges or the meditative and thoughtful Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh is an expert in capturing all the nuance and complexity of life. Whilst he is never afraid to tackle serious topics and big issues, he does so with a playfulness and humour that has become his calling card – often delivered by his fellow countrymen Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.
In revisiting McDonagh’s filmography, it soon became clear that his films deal with shades of grey. Aside from the occasional gangster, many of the characters in these movies are neither good nor bad. They are just people trying to scratch out some kind of life from the hand they’ve been dealt. All human life is here. Watched together back-to-back, McDonagh’s films are almost too much – an overwhelming heart swell of hope, misery, pain, regret, and love. And death. In McDonagh’s films, nobody is safe. Not even Colin Farrell…
5. Six Shooter (2004)
This Oscar-winning short film serves as the perfect introduction to McDonagh’s work. All his director trademarks are here. Authentic dialogue. Ultra-violence. Uproarious comedy. It also served as proof that McDonagh could make the transition from stage to film.
Taking place almost exclusively on a moving train, Six Shooter introduces us to the first of many of McDonagh’s psychopaths, this one played with reckless enthusiasm by Rúaidhrí Conroy, and it also marks the first onscreen collaboration between McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson – a partnership that we will hear more about later in this list.
Six Shooter condenses everything that makes McDonagh great into 27 breathless minutes, and for that reason, it is essential viewing. It also introduced the world to Domhnall Gleeson, with the Irish actor making his onscreen debut as a moody ticket collector. If that’s not enough to entice you in, perhaps the fact that Six Shooter literally features an exploding cow will do the trick.
4. Seven Psychopaths (2012)
Seven Psychopaths is the forgotten child of McDonagh’s feature films. This is odd because it’s as funny as In Bruges and as ambitious as The Banshees of Inisherin. Moreover, as with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it features an electric performance from Sam Rockwell. So, why has it been forgotten?
Marty (Colin Farrell) is trying to write a screenplay about seven psychopaths. Unfortunately, Marty’s friend Billy (Rockwell) is very much one of the titular psychopaths. His involvement in the project becomes complicated when he gets involved with many other psychopaths from the Los Angeles underworld. These include a gangster obsessed with his dog (Woody Harrelson), a lunatic obsessed with his rabbit (Tom Waits), and a Vietnamese priest obsessed with revenge (Long Nguyen). A lot is going on in this movie…
…and therein lies the rub.
If anything, Seven Psychopaths is too ambitious. McDonagh packs in so many ideas and so much meta-commentary that viewing the finished film is an overwhelming experience. I haven’t even mentioned Christopher Walken yet, who perhaps provides the most Christopher Walken performance of all time. His comedic interplay with Farrell and Rockwell is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.
Ultimately, Seven Psychopaths is perhaps not quite as good as the sum of its parts. Still, it marks a stepping stone from the straightforward gangster comedy of In Bruges to the more sophisticated fare that would come to define McDonagh’s later career.
3. In Bruges (2008)
It is so easy to say ‘the real star of In Bruges is Bruges itself’ but… you know… the real star of In Bruges IS Bruges itself. The Venice of the North is so picturesque and eye-catching that every scene pops, providing the perfect backdrop to a gangster movie with a beating heart pounding in its chest. The cast is also in sparkling form. Colin Farrell, thankfully not asked to put on an accent, is hilarious as the bewildered and grief-stricken Ray handling both the humour and the heavier scenes with aplomb. This dichotomy between light and shade is vital to the film’s overall success. Many other movies struggle to shift gears between comedy and more serious fare, often losing focus, but McDonagh does a terrific job spinning various opposing plates here.
In Bruges is endlessly quotable, laugh-out-loud funny, and as a result, it has rightly become a cult classic. Had this been released later into McDonagh’s filmography when he was already a big name, In Bruges would surely have received the plaudits and awards that his later films have done. Also, you can’t really argue with a film that features Colin Farrell karate-chopping a dwarf, can you? That’s about as good as cinema gets.
2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Haunted by grief and fuelled by a dull rage, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) hires three billboards to express her disgust that the local police force has failed to catch her daughter’s murderer. Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is the main source of her ire. The situation isn’t helped by his right-hand man Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a violent racist with psychopathic tendencies. The erection of the billboards has a domino effect that takes this story to many surprising places. McDonagh is not afraid to rip up the rule book halfway through, and while this can be jarring, it means that Three Billboards… is a film that demands your attention.
Three Billboards… is a film about blurred lines. Lines between sanity and loss of control, good and bad, and between life and death. Not everybody is all evil, and not everybody is all good. By presenting a tableau of morally ambiguous characters coping with grief and pain, McDonagh created something that garnered the worldwide attention that his talent deserves. Whilst it was scandalously beaten to Best Picture at the Oscars by The Shape of the Water, the fact that both Rockwell and McDormand picked up acting gongs tells you everything you need to know about the sheer quality of this movie.
1. The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)
Life can feel mundane sometimes. Same boring job. Same mundane pub. And the same old conversations. But hopefully, for some of us, there is comfort in routine. I go to the same pub every two weeks or so with the same person, and I love it as dearly now as I did the first time we shared a pint together. The Banshees of Inisherin imagines what would happen if one day I woke up and it wasn’t enough for me anymore, or perhaps more pertinently, it wasn’t enough for my companion…
Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) is a simple man. He cares for his animals. He loves his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon). And at 2 pm every day, he calls for his best friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), and they go to the pub together. One day, Colm decides that he doesn’t want to be friends with Padraic anymore. To the extent that he threatens to cut his own fingers off should Padraic ever darken his door again. Elsewhere, Barry Keoghan plays a village idiot-type character who is both tragic and hilarious in equal measure.
The Inisherin of the title is the name dreamed up by writer-director Martin McDonagh for the fictional island upon which the whole film takes place. It was actually filmed on location with various Irish islands standing in for Inisherin. The result is a gorgeous-looking film in which every other shot is breathtakingly beautiful.
The characters on the island seem oblivious to the beauty around them, instead being content to live out humdrum lives of no consequence. Apart from Colm, that is. Nobody plays contemplative better than Gleeson, and McDonagh uses Colm as an expression of the ever-looming fear that there is more to life than this. There has to be. Colm concludes that the arts and creating a legacy are what give life meaning. For Padraic, loving your family and friends is enough. McDonagh doesn’t choose sides either way, instead allowing the viewer to reach their own conclusion.
With his latest film, McDonagh has eclipsed all of his earlier work, great though it is, to create something of real resonance. Quite simply, The Banshees of Inisherin is the best film of the 2020s so far.