Martin McDonagh: The Art of Tragi-Comedy

Martin McDonagh’s debut film, In Bruges (2008) remains one of my all time favourites.

Image result for in bruges

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched it. But every time I do, I discover another brilliant spec of writing that I hadn’t noticed before – there isn’t a wasted line, and every moment has relevance outside of the scene it takes place in.

If you think you found something inconsequential… Watch it again. The film is that tight.

Some of the jokes haven’t aged well, there’s a lot of swearing (in typical Irish fashion) and the plot is dark, but McDonagh’s uncanny ability to generate and string together tension results in the kind of sharp, dark, hysterical character driven drama which has become a staple of his work.

He’s also responsible for Seven Psychopaths (2012), and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) which received four golden globes and is nothing short of exceptional.

The thing I didn’t know until today (which has brought McDonagh back to the forefront of my mind) is that the Irish writer is also responsible for one of my favourite plays; The Lieutenant Of Inishmore (2001).

Learning this was a penny-drop moment for me. Finally, I think I understand why these films resonate with me so deeply; I fell in love with with the stories McDonagh tells for the same reason that I fell in love with theatre.

I adore stories where complex characters navigate tragic circumstances in the imperfect ways that humans do.

Dramatic theatre has an easier time with this, because its nature implies a restraint that modern cinema simply doesn’t have to worry about.

There aren’t any Michael Bay explosion sequences at the theatre.

Instead, playwrights rely on their characters to generate tension, set stakes scenes and drive plot.

McDonagh is an expert at crafting morally ambiguous characters and smashing them together to create tragedy, and it pleases me to no end that he’s able to translate this skill to the screen – the resulting chaos is so much fun to watch.

All of the works listed tackle horridly dark subject matter in a way which doesn’t shy away or undermine the severity of the tragedies, but still finds the humour in them.

Black comedy is at its best when it allows us to consider the most challenging aspects of the human condition in the most human way we know how, seamlessly blending tragedy and comedy to incite catharsis.

He knows exactly when to let the audience sit in a tragic moment, and when to loose the tension in a scene through a well written joke. Funny moments aren’t tacked on to scenes for cheap release, they are embedded deeply within those scenes.

When our lives become too much, we generally respond by laughing or crying.

Masters of ‘tragi-comedy’ make us do both.

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