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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | July 6, 2020

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The Pacifist Rage of Martin McDonagh

The Pacifist Rage of Martin McDonagh

| On 27, Jul 2015

In the 2012 metafictional film Seven Psychopaths, screenwriter Martin (Colin Farrell) bemoans that he’s unable to write anything that doesn’t involve “guys with guns in their hands”. This has been a tension in the work of writer Martin McDonagh since his earliest days as a playwright in Ireland, a simultaneous aesthetic fascination and moral disgust with violence.

As a young playwright, McDonagh told an interviewer for Bomb Magazine that he had “respect for the whole history of films, but a slight disrespect for theatre”. This dichotomy led him to create plays like The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which opens with a description of a living room containing a “Home Sweet Home” embroidery and ends with a scene involving two men sawing the limbs off a body. McDonagh didn’t so much subvert maudlin Irish drama as gleefully demolish it, writing plays dense with plot, wordplay and violence.


A writer with an incredible ear for dialogue, his plays (with the exception of the most recent two, The Pillowman and A Behanding in Spokane) all take place in rural Ireland, using regional dialects to craft dialogue that is simultaneously lyrical and deeply profane.

But what stopped them from devolving into a mere thumb-nosing at tradition (though there was plenty of that), was a moral seriousness at the heart of even his most lurid works. In writing The Lieutenant…, a satire of Irish sectarian groups, McDonagh said that he was “trying to write a play that would get me killed”, while lamenting that “paramilitaries never bother with playwrights”.

His first feature film, In Bruges, involved a rookie assassin trying to escape his profession after a job gone horribly wrong. The repercussions of violence permeate the movie, which at the same time treats us to wickedly funny lines like, “I’m sorry for calling you an inanimate fucking object. I was upset.”


It’s a have your cake and eat it too approach that differentiates him from filmmakers like Guy Ritchie or Shane Black who tread in a similar hyper-verbal, darkly comedic milieu. McDonagh’s films and plays are violent works that are passionately anti-violence, written with what he has referred to as a “pacifist rage”.

It’s a rage that has no consideration for sentimentality or decorum and can often lead to places that are as ridiculous as they are dark. To quote Ghandi, “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind”. But to quote Billy (Sam Rockwell) of McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, “No, it doesn’t. There’ll be one guy left with one eye. How’s the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy who’s still got one eye left? All that guy had to do is run away and hide behind a bush.”

You can kind of see the logic, if you squint.

Image Credit: Focus Features