I remember when I had no imagination for how ugly the process of redemption can look. It seems like that change in the landscape of my mind marks the point in life when I could say with certainty that I had grown up. In that moment, whatever or whenever it was, hope suddenly meant something different, something heavy and precious. It wasn’t pretty—not in the traditional sense of the word anyway. Learning to carry it hurt me, and I had to get used to the weight of something so worth holding, so demanding of a firm grip.
I’m probably the eighteen-thousandth person on the Rabbit Room mailing list to declare that Flannery O’Connor’s short stories played a role in developing my language for this newfound perception of grace and the moments signifying its entry into our lives, the sanctifying it promises or in some cases threatens to do. When I finished “Good Country People” for the first time, I was lying on my back with the book opened flat, paper-down on my stomach while I pressed my fists against my eyes and tried to get a grip on how such a bizarre story, with sour-tasting characters and a seemingly bleak, sharp-edged ending, could make me feel I was actually breathing easier.
A similar confusing comfort strikes me when I watch Martin McDonagh’s movies. A brief synopsis of his career in case his name is new to you: he achieved acclaim in the storytelling scene as a playwright first, and the scripts he published in the 90s and early 2000s earned distinguished shelf-space particularly in Ireland’s library of plays. He stepped away from theatre to write and direct his own films for a while and only recently returned to stage work again, having verbalized his preference for filmmaking. His feature length films—In Bruges (2008), Seven Psychopaths (2012) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)—are distinctly recognizable by their raucous, impertinent dark humor; characters often exploding with absurdity while maintaining disarming believability, who are humanized at surprising times whether or not you want them to be; and violence that’s so jarring it’s comical one moment and sobering the next.
Inevitably, some moviegoers will find McDonagh’s filmography is not their cup of tea. In this case, their stance may be that he does nothing more than cram his screenplays with cartoonish gore and language unrestricted to the point of being almost unpalatable for the sake of style, that he does no caretaking for anything lovely or good with his writing. I can’t deny that he reveres American standards of profanity censorship very little if at all, and hyperreal violence is part of his signature. I am wearied knowing there is enough ugly talk and unneeded bloodshed in the world without media adding to it, but I also can’t pretend I don’t have a softly morbid sense of humor myself. What’s more, I can’t escape the suspicion that something powerful happens when Martin McDonagh tells a story, not despite but because of how he tells it: that this powerful something is good, and glorifies the things art should glorify in a Kingdom ruled by a loving God.
The courses on which his characters find themselves reveal the spaces, in their lives and ours, where grace hangs indomitably overhead before collapsing over our skulls, altering forever the horizon before us and hardly being gentle about it.Janie Townsend
Not unlike Flannery O’Connor, McDonagh bequeaths his protagonists and antagonists with dysfunctional moral compasses and ample negative or at least questionable qualities so that viewers can’t always be sure who the “good” and “bad” guys are. He sends his (anti)heroes into wayward explorations of themselves, others, the world, the possibility that this world is not where reality stops—he corners them against the hope for hope, although this tends to look more gruesome on screen than it sounds in a sentence. Their crooked stories of growth and decline, sin and forgiveness build with intensity and macabre hilarity, fracturing into sincerity and tenderness sometimes without warning, immediately spiraling into more quips and shootouts and impeccable soundtrack selections. The courses on which his characters find themselves reveal the spaces, in their lives and ours, where grace hangs indomitably overhead before collapsing over our skulls, altering forever the horizon before us and hardly being gentle about it.
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson’s characters in McDonagh’s premier film, In Bruges, find themselves facing judgment and potential deliverance of sorts after a slipshod assassination assignment leaves them both more or less stranded in Belgium with their regrets, copious illegal substances used for self-medication, and each other. Seven Psychopaths focuses on three friends and a handful of nutcases (these circles overlap) who somehow manage to encourage each other existentially after becoming entangled in a wacky mob vendetta. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell play gleefully flawed, at times reprehensible, at times lovable citizens of Ebbing, Missouri in McDonagh’s latest cinematic endeavor about a crusade for justice that careens out of control. Their characters endure trauma, loss, underserved sympathy, unsolicited and backhanded helpings of humility, and reassurances just substantial enough to carry them through life if only for one more day.
In each film, you can’t quite hate any of the significant characters and you can’t say anyone is perfect or even ideal. But everyone, repellent or attractive for whatever reason, encounters surprising gusts of redeeming power amidst and often because of their hideous errors and unconventional brushes with fierce, persevering love. In some moments, this love shows itself when outlandish, hard mercy ambushes a character and strips away whatever framework they thought they had, disrupting their existence so a richer one might begin. The “hard mercy” to which I’m referring could be any painful, warped or initially sinful thing—a protagonist witnessing a grisly death, another enduring an agonizing injury that leaves them severely scarred, a mistake that jerks the story’s plot or at least one character’s arc in a different direction than the audience anticipates.
In other moments, the vulnerability and compassion in one character affront and consequently nourish the vulnerability and compassion of another. Penetrating kindness then connects players in a plot—players who may even be enemies—if only for a second, and the unshakable humanness of people and our capacities for love are celebrated all the more resonantly because such instances of tenderness are shared within a context of dominating darkness.
There is a fresh and fervent regard for humanity in McDonagh's films, and a love for life made somehow more tangible to me because of the carnage or cruelty the characters have to muddle through.Janie Townsend
No one ever up and changes, suddenly a saint after all the wrong they’ve done or overlooked—but no one isn’t changed, and every character lands at the starting line of a narrative warping their murky past (and present) into a shape the script doesn’t run long enough to reveal. Not everyone necessarily receives the reshaping, which is partly why McDonagh’s stories remind me so much of O’Connor’s—in “Good Country People,” Hulga is inhospitably subjected to hope in renewal, but the reader never finds out whether she accepts her helplessness and the liberation that comes with it.
I can’t be certain of McDonagh’s beliefs about God, Jesus or the afterlife—he was raised Catholic and, like his screenwriter protagonist from Seven Psychopaths explains regarding his own work, writes a descent amount of “heaven and hell stuff” in his movies. At any rate, his films aren’t being sold on DVD and Blu-Ray at any Lifeway stores. He’s said himself that he isn’t someone who avidly tries to broadcast a message with his art, but that he has wanted his movies to be life-affirming, ultimately.
I have a feeling the impish delight with which he enlivens characters, dialogue and plot structures on screen and stage is the means and end of his work, which is the wonderfully simple call for anyone saddled with a need to be creative. But whether he means to or not, his upside-down, twisted truth-telling digs into the relentless, often leveling process of redemption as it barrels forth before us, hollowing out a way we have no choice but to follow—unless of course we decide to stop or go back the way we came, a way which never quite looks how it did when we travelled it the first time and rarely offers us life when revisited.
The humor is jet black and the gore is garish at times, so I would suggest you do research and watch trailers before inviting your neighbors to a Martin McDonagh movie night. My affinity for his storytelling is in no way an insult to anyone with different taste buds just as anyone else’s differing opinion would not be an inherent insult to mine. Every person is a broken person, so every artist is a broken artist, and of course there are things about any bloody action flick or gritty drama that probably don’t teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven. But there is a fresh and fervent regard for humanity in McDonagh’s films, and a love for life somehow made more tangible to me because of the carnage or cruelty the characters have to muddle through. His lines make me laugh and his characters teach me a sort of grace and joy for myself that the Lord is ever encouraging me to hunger for. His stories help me hope. That is enough to make me sure that, in his own way, Martin McDonagh is a caretaker of something good indeed.
Equal parts children's fiction writer, musical theatre expert, and emo pop-punk music aficionado, Janie Townsend can always be found among good stories. Along with her unmistakable voice, she contributes a haunting yet playful narrative tone to The Orchardist's music in the form of meticulous vocal arrangements.