The McDonagh brothers put Irish cinema on the world map

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Pic: John Michael (left) and Martin McDonagh

In 2008, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh directed his first feature film, In Bruges.

Fourteen years earlier, in his mid-20s, McDonagh had burst onto the British theatre scene writing his first 7 plays in a mere 10 months. Those plays and his later works can be described as dark and bloody comedies, covering everything from exhumed skeletons to patricide to a man searching for his missing hand. In recent years, Mr. McDonagh has come to be regarded as one of the most important living Irish playwrights (although he has lived his entire life in London).

In 2004, he directed a 27 minute short film titled Six Shooter, which went on to win the Oscar for best live action short film.

So when he got around to directing In Bruges, the audience got a 107 minutes of signature McDonagh – sharp dialogue, political incorrectness and a fair bit of violence, all delivered through a hilariously twisted plot. The movie features Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two Irish hitmen who have been sent to the city of Bruges by their boss, Ralph Fiennes to await instructions after a botched job. I remember watching this movie the year it was released and being thoroughly entertained by the sheer bull-headedness and audacity of the various characters. Although I haven’t watched it since then, it’s the sort of movie that you don’t mind catching snippets of on YouTube from time to time, like this dinner scene:

Meanwhile, his elder brother John Michael McDonagh had directed his own short film The Second Death in 2000 and then written the screenplay for the Australian biopic Ned Kelly, which told the story of the legendary Irish-Australian outlaw of the 19th century (the lead role was played by Heath Ledger). But he really hit the big time with his first feature film The Guard, released in 2011. This is easily one of the most entertaining crime capers I have seen in recent times. Brendan Gleeson plays an Irish police officer (referred to as Guards or garda in Irish) who chances upon a major plot to smuggle cocaine into the country by sea. He pairs up with an American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to stop the smugglers who have also murdered his new partner. This description does no justice to the kind of characters we are dealing with – Gleeson is the epitome of political incorrectness, who thinks nothing of being drunk on duty or soliciting prostitutes or stealing drugs from criminals. Check out this classic scene where Gleeson interrupts Dong Cheadle’s police briefing session to say, “I thought only black lads are drug dealers?”

But behind that gruff exterior lies the proverbial heart of gold and a most cunning mind that no criminal can outwit. The criminals are also an entertaining bunch, played by seasoned British character actors Liam Cunningham (Ser Davos from Game of Thrones) and Mark Strong (Kingsman, The Imitation Game, etc.) and after an entertaining cat-and-mouse game, it all ends in a ridiculous shoot-out at the dock where the cocaine has come in.

A year later in 2012, younger brother Martin was back in action with his 2nd film Seven Psychopaths, again a difficult-to-categorize crime drama/comedy featuring Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson. Colin Farrell plays a screenwriter who ends up on the run from a gang of criminals after his friends unknowingly kidnap a gangster’s (Woody Harrelson) pet dog. I found the humor in this film a bit forced and too self-referential to the LA film world. A bit of a misstep and I hope Martin McDonagh’s future screenplays will stay firmly in Ireland or within the United Kingdom.

And then last year, John Michael came back to the big screen with his next effort Calvary. This is a real change of pace, as this film deals with serious and sensitive matter of childhood sexual abuse by priests, a raging and controversial topic in Ireland in recent years. Once again, it’s Brendan Gleeson who plays the lead role, this time as a priest who has to deal with a death threat and various spiritual challenges while trying simultaneously to reconnect with his estranged daughter. This is the most complex and multi-layered entry in the ‘McDonagh quartet’ and perhaps the toughest to watch.

John Michael has gone straight back to work on his next film, War on Everyone. Like brother Martin’s Seven Psychopaths, this film crosses the Atlantic and is set in New Mexico. This immediately makes be a bit wary, as I would much rather have the brothers stick to their Irish roots! It also looks like Brendan Gleeson will not be in this film, so that’s a pity as well.

Nevertheless, in less than a decade the McDonagh brothers have together put modern Irish cinema back on the world map, following in the footsteps of Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father), Neil Jordan (Michael Collins, The Crying Game), Terry George (Hotel Rwanda, Some Mother’s Son) and Kenneth Branagh (although he is rarely categorized as an Irish director). Their films have broken free of The Troubles and have garnered dozens of award wins and nominations with their entertaining blend of humor, drama and that endearing Irish stubbornness.

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