Perhaps I should elaborate on what's wrong with Tarantino these days; it might help make clear what's so good about McDonagh. Tarantino's most recent film, Inglorious Basterds, has yet to debut in the States. The reports from Cannes were decidedly mixed: Apparently the film is less a rousing story of Nazi-killing than a homage to the Conquering Power of Film. So, an ultraviolent period remake of Cinema Paradiso? Sign me up. Tarantino's early films featured ambiguous characters and left audiences theorizing and pondering. Consider the unanswered questions in Reservoir Dogs or the moral choices Bruce Willis' character makes in Pulp Fiction. By the time we get to the Kill Bill films, however, the only remaining "ambiguity" comes from the unimportant shuffling of chronology. Indeed, I think Tarantino has traded ambiguity for "authenticity." If Real Exploitation Films did blood splatter by filling condoms with red paint, Tarantino is damn well going to follow suit. If he's doing a kung fu movie, Tarantino is damn well going to cast the (late, lamented) David Carradine and write a cameo for Sonny Chiba. At times it's funny - The missing reel and scratched film in Deathproof - but at other times it's just a bit obsessive. Tarantino lets the little things distract him so much that his films seem to lack a big picture. McDonagh, on the other hand, has the ability to make seemingly-unimportant characters into vital parts of his movies. The comic drug-addled midget (who prefers to be called a dwarf) in In Bruges might seem like a gag character. He's not.
Six Shooter was McDonagh's first film; in 2006 it won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. I won't spoil the film's plot here, though I will mention it includes murder, suicide, a shootout, and a bovine explosion. The film at times seems like a collaboration between Flannery O'Connor and Monty Python's Flying Circus - It's funny, it's disturbing, and it will leave you thinking. Six Shooter is available for $1.98 on iTunes. It's a great price for an extremely good film.
Six Shooter's star Brendan Gleeson appears again in McDonagh's second (and first feature-length) film, In Bruges, though he plays a very different role. Whereas in Six Shooter Gleeson was a somewhat-ineffectual widower, here he's an aging hitman named Ken who works aside a younger killer named Ray (Colin Farrell). Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Ken and Ray's boss, has sent his employees to the "fairy tale" Belgian city of Bruges after a hit on a priest went wrong. Though Ray managed to kill his target, he also put a bullet in the head of a small child who had been praying in the church where the killing took place. Harry eventually asks Ken to kill Ray, as "if I had killed a little kid, accidentally or otherwise, I wouldn't have thought twice. I'd killed myself on the fucking spot. On the fucking spot. I would've stuck the gun in me mouth." Ken can't bring himself to kill his friend; violence ensues. While In Bruges features many "audience-friendly" elements (Hitmen! Pretty European locales! Violence! Light Irish accents! More violence! Colin Farrell!), it never stoops to pandering. McDonagh entertains without sacrificing his artistic intent.
One of McDonagh's great virtues is his honesty: He doesn't go in for trite resolutions and laughably happy endings. In Bruges doesn't end with Ray learning that the kid he shot got better. Characters we like die, sometimes unnecessarily, and the film ends with a major character's fate unresolved. While Ken, Ray, and even Harry all commit actions that might seem atoning, McDonagh never lets us forget the various evils that all three men have been responsible for.
In Bruges asks big questions about guilt and atonement, but it generally avoids solemnity. There are a few overly-portentous moments, especially in the film's Hieronymus Bosch-influenced ending. McDonagh also seems too drawn to easy stereotypes - Snooty Europeans, overweight Ugly Americans, Irishmen who say "fuck" a lot. The caricatures, while entertaining, detract from the characters. Yet it's easy to forgive McDonagh a few moments of artistic failure in a film that's so funny, entertaining, and quotable. ends suddenly and ambiguously - Instead of shoving a moralistic ending down our throats, McDonagh trusts his audience to interpret his work and his characters. In this day and age, that is a remarkable virtue, and one that makes up for many failings. I hope McDonagh keeps directing - Both of his films impressed me; he seems almost to be what Tarantino should have been.