Lapsed Catholics and Stray Bullets: The Works of Martin McDonagh

Lapsed Catholics and Stray Bullets: The Works of Martin McDonagh

For the past two decades, Martin McDonagh has established himself as a sensational writer of emotional disturbance and darkly funny exchanges in his Irish-set plays and crime-focused films. He may not be a household name, but that name already has an Academy Award and several Tony nominations under its belt. We have a number of his works in the collection worth recommending.


Written in the mid-Nineties, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Other Plays offers a trilogy of stories centered around the same town and immediately shows McDonagh's gifts for cleverly inane banter and simmering tensions.

The title play, recalling works like 'night Mother and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, is a conduit for extreme bitterness between family. Forty-year-old Maureen cares for her frail yet demanding and manipulative mother Mag. Feeling emotionally trapped, Maureen longs for a life untethered and briefly tastes it. Unfortunately, Mag's meddling gets in the way, and feelings boil up to a frothing and shocking climax.

All three plays interlock, sharing characters such as Father Walsh...or is it Welsh? No one can seem to agree. The plays also explore dark themes of envy and despondency. The Skull in Connemara features a man hired to dig up bones in the full town graveyard and smash them. It's business as usual until he finds that his next task is his departed wife.

In The Lonesome West, idiot brothers bicker over the worthiness of ridges on chips then follow it up with attempted fratricide. Their hideous behavior causes young Father Welsh to lose both his faith...and his will to live. Time after time, McDonagh blends tragedy with comedy to create riveting ponderings of mankind's behavior.

McDonagh continued to write many other plays, including The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Pillowman. He has the distinction of being the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four plays in production in London at the same time.

McDonagh immediately found success in the cinematic realm when he made Six Shooter, his first film project. Brendan Gleeson stars as a mourning widower on a train back home. On the same car is a young, excruciatingly rude lad who mocks everyone in sight. The youth epitomizes McDonagh's gift in concocting an extremely unlikeable character who simultaneously is a hilarious charmer.

At less than thirty minutes, Six Shooter is a breezy but slightly chilling short film which earned its writer-director an Oscar in 2005. 

In Bruges is McDonagh's first feature-length film. It stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two hit men who must lie low in Belgium after a botched job.

Gleeson's character is delighted to get away to this small, historic town, but Farrell goes stir-crazy with guilt from the previous job, hoping to drown his feelings in drink. The assassins have a delightful Odd Couple chemistry, and Ralph Fiennes provides a wonderful turn as their quick-to-anger boss.

McDonagh's most recent film is Seven Psychopaths, in which Farrell stars as writer Marty, who is mentally blocked in the midst of writing a movie called...Seven Psychopaths. Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken appear as the operators of a dog-napping-and-return swindle. The trouble begins when the pair abduct a vengeful mobster's Shih Tzu. Marty is pulled along for the ride.

As the movie progresses, the actors polish the fourth wall to the point of transparency. Rockwell's character, Billy Bickle, begins to acknowledge his existence as a movie character, pushing the narrative wherever he sees fit as he eyes a particularly cool rock formation as the setting for a final shootout. Meanwhile, Marty is clearly exhausted with tiresome tropes of movie violence, and he isn't particularly happy to find that his own life has started mimicking them.

Seven Psychopaths isn't perfect. It lacks any female characters with agency and actually criticizes itself on that point midway into the film. Still, the writing has incredible wit and bite, and you'd have to go back to Pulp Fiction for a more delectable Christopher Walken performance. The film shows McDonagh's mastery of the form—and the potential for him to make something truly great in the future.

McDonagh's fans are already hotly anticipating his next film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouribut it will be years before we see it. The writer is very much invested in taking time to write and reflect on life rather than churn out a slew of diminishing results. In the meantime, McDonagh has given us much to read, watch, and enjoy.