In Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's universe, there's little rule of law or moral authority. The police are at best useless and at worst abusive, as is the Irish Catholic Church: In a trio of plays set in the Galway village of Leenane, characters refer repeatedly to "Father Walsh— Welsh," unable to even remember the local parish priest's name. When the despondent, alcoholic Father Welsh finally appears on stage in the last play, a man, Coleman, just done burying the father he murdered, tries to give him a pep talk: "The only thing with you is you're a bit too weedy and you're a terror for the drink and you have doubts about Catholicism. Apart from that you're a fine priest."
That scene, the murderer comforting the priest, encapsulates the worldview of McDonagh's plays: the characters simply have no expectation of moral order. McDonagh – now a screenwriter-director premiering his debut feature, In Bruges – is best known for a handful of violently comic plays about terrible people that look, on the surface, like pat morality tales but which don't operate like any such tales we know. In addition to The Leenane Trilogy (comprised of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West), he has written a standalone play, The Pillowman, and another trilogy, made up of The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Banshees of Inisheer (the only one which remains unstaged).
In the absence of authority, McDonagh's characters live by their own individual moral codes, and violence usually erupts when those codes collide. Coleman, it turns out, murdered his father for making fun of his hairstyle ("there's some insults that can never be excused," he explains to Father Welsh). Maureen, the long-suffering spinster at the center of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, punishes her manipulative mother by pouring hot oil over her hands and, later, bludgeoning her to death with a poker. Padraic, the psychopathic antihero of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, sets off an uncontrollable bloodbath when he attempts to find out who murdered his beloved cat. Even characters who don't kill find ways to be unspeakably cruel: Mick, in A Skull in Connemara, makes a living by digging up skeletons from the graveyard in order to make room for new corpses; he disposes of the bones by smashing them with a mallet. In The Cripple of Inishmaan, Helen tells the crippled orphan Billy that his parents committed suicide in order to spare themselves the trouble of raising a sickly child.
The characters would seem cartoonish if they ended there, but the genius of McDonagh's writing is that he thwarts our attempts to write them off as unredeemable antiheros; each has his or her motivation, and violence, in many cases, is an act as good as it is evil. In The Pillowman, which is set in an unnamed totalitarian state, a writer named Katurian is interrogated by the police about his macabre tales — several of which involve torturing or killing children and which may have inspired a rash of child murders. As the play unfolds, we discover that Katurian's penchant for twisted tales is the result of his parents' childrearing "experiment," which required torturing his brother in order to spark the dark side of Katurian's imagination. Katurian killed his parents and rescued his brother, which seems just, until you discover that the brother is the one murdering the town children, and that Katurian values his stories above his own life — even though his writing wouldn't be possible without his parents' monstrous act.
The Pillowman highlights the problem with looking for a simple or uncomplicated moral lesson in McDonagh's work. Instead, his plays revel in the characters' thought processes, enjoying the contradictions in their inner lives. As if to focus attention on these interior processes, McDonagh's plays are usually staged with minimalist, gloomy sets: rusty kitchens; a smattering of rocks to signify the outdoors; a table and a couple of fold-out chairs to indicate a police-interrogation room. Because of this, it would seem that McDonagh's transformation into a filmmaker would be an awkward one, but in fact this quality is further expanded by film. McDonagh's first foray into filmmaking, the 2004 short Six Shooter, takes place mainly on a train; the rolling, green Irish landscape passing by outside the windows contrasts the characters' stifling interiority.
In Bruges features similar expansions on a theme: the charming medieval town of Bruges is so small that the characters run past the same buildings over and over, illustrating Ray's (Colin Farrell) claustrophobia. The film also makes the most of subjective camera angles, basing plot twists on the sudden revelation of what a character previously couldn't see. When In Bruges opened Sundance recently, Martin McDonagh explained the story's peculiar morality to a CanWest reporter and, in the process, summed up all of his work to date: "I don't know if people can be redeemed after the terrible things they do," he said, "but I enjoyed asking the question."
Priya Jain is the features and books editor for BUST Magazine and an adjuct professor at NYU. Her cultural writing has appeared in the New York Times Books Review, Salon, the New York Observer, and other publications. She lives in New York City.