British-Irish playwright, screenwriter and film director Martin McDonagh has made a name for himself by challenging the aesthetics and conventions of theatre and cinema throughout his career, his fairly short 4-film-long list of feature releases each challenging ordinary character conventions and asking their viewers to consider less-typical representations of herodom, of love, of care, sympathy, and so on. His work on the screen is loosely described as Black Comedy, the act of making light of a taboo subject, but it is the heart that he manages to underpin his work with that has transcended the intellect of his ideas and the challenges his writing purposefully proposes, McDonagh’s films clever but also gratifying, hearty and emotive.
In McDonagh’s relatively short filmmaking career, he has shown a willingness to honourably explore mental health and an aptitude for finding light in the darkest of places. Across In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Banshees of Inisherin, this talented craftsman has presented child murderers, church paedophilia, rapists, racists, and even (“Bloody Yanks”) Americans, on his way to an abundance of critical acclaim, 6 Oscar nominations, 8 BAFTA nominations, an Oscar win (for his short film Six Shooter in 2006) and 4 BAFTA wins. He is a screenwriter of intelligent, layered comedy and tragedy, and a director with a distinct sense of timing and a talent for getting incredible performances from great actors.
In this edition of Ranked, we at The Film Magazine are comparing and contrasting the four feature films of Martin McDonagh’s acclaimed directorial career, and ranking each from worst to best in terms of their artistic credentials, endeavour, creativity, filmmaking standards, critical acclaim and mass appeal. These are: Martin McDonagh Films Ranked.
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4. Seven Psychopaths (2012)
Seven Psychopaths is, appropriately for a piece by Martin McDonagh, an intelligent film seeking to deconstruct the norms of the form it is made within. Here, McDonagh takes aim at the Hollywood machine with a meta take on censorship, the structures of Hollywood movies, and the sordid underground that supports it all. This 2012 entry into McDonagh’s oeuvre sits as it does at the bottom of this list because, despite all of its intelligence and purpose, it falls somewhat short of his other films in terms of emotion, of heart.
Seven Psychopaths is spectacularly playful and some sequences downright hilarious, but there is less depth to its characters, fewer layers to its thematic undertaking. McDonagh was clearly in great form by this stage of his career, and the uniqueness of his quick-hit dialogue and prominent character arcs no doubt drew the attention of his all-star ensemble (which includes Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Woody Harrelson, Michael Pitt, Tom Waits, Michael Stuhlbarg, and regular collaborator Colin Farrell, among others), Seven Psychopaths reading almost as well as a top tier Shane Black film like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But, this is a movie in which the emotional core seems to be the afterthought as opposed to the purpose, and where cinema is less of a priority than writing; like a funny essay on film.
Seven Psychopaths is by no means a bad movie. In fact, it’s very funny and clever, and would undoubtedly sit atop of many a filmmaker’s filmography. But, in a selection of films as strong as these, “very funny and clever”, even “eye-opening” and “unique” (two terms which could easily be attributed to this release), are only parts of what make the following films so great, Seven Pyschopaths a welcome inclusion in Martin McDonagh’s catalogue but not quite the modern greats to come.
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Arguably the most successful film of Martin McDonagh’s career to date – the film earning 2 Academy Awards and 5 BAFTA Film Awards, plus 9 further nominations across both ceremonies; even crossing over into the mainstream news because of its representation of “middle America” during a particularly divisive period in US history – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is dark and powerful filmmaking that earns laughs when it perhaps shouldn’t, but knows exactly when to put the comedy to bed and hit you with some devastating drama.
The lead performance from Frances McDormand as a mother still suffering the trauma and hurt of her daughter being brutally murdered is frankly astonishing, her Oscar and BAFTA wins well deserved. She is tough, powerful, and acts within the narrative as if a vengeful spirit ready to bring trauma to anyone who stands in the way of her finding justice. She is arguably the most naturally sympathetic of all of McDonagh’s lead characters, her journey being one that anyone can find empathy towards, and yet she is still troublesome in her own ways, she still operates in moral grey areas.
McDonagh is, of course, no stranger to these grey areas, and this film straddles that realm with particular mastery. This isn’t as funny or quotable as one of the films to come on this list, nor as deeply powerful as the other, but it is meticulously imagined, beautifully presented, and performed to such an extraordinary level that it is no doubt just as unmissable. Three Billboards is a Martin McDonagh film through and through, its awards attention being the signal to the world that this is a filmmaker producing English language cinema unlike that of anyone else.
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