The Gospel According to the McDonaghs: The Banshees of Inisherin, Calvary, and In Bruges

Graphic violence and absurdist humor mark the films of brothers Martin and John Michael McDonagh, which also resonate with spiritual awareness shaped by the Catholicism of the filmmakers’ youth.

Note: This essay contains spoilers for The Banshees of Inisherin, Calvary, and In Bruges. SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

“The things you’re taught as a child…they never really leave you, do they?”

These words could be at home in any of a number of works from either Martin or John Michael McDonagh. As it happens, it was younger brother Martin who wrote that line for Brendan Gleeson’s character in his 2008 black comedy-drama In Bruges, but the principle is very much at work, for example, in John Michael’s 2014 drama Calvary and Martin’s new black comedy The Banshees of Inisherin—both of which also star Gleeson, among other common elements.

Born and raised in London by Irish-born parents, the McDonagh brothers grew up in an Irish enclave, educated in Catholic schools by Irish priests, and spent their summers in the West of Ireland, where their parents were from. The brothers’ lapsed Catholicism is a factor in some of their other works, notably Martin’s Leenane Trilogy, a cycle of stage plays. For John Michael, Calvary is the second film in a planned trilogy along with his 2011 breakout film The Guard (which has only minor religious elements) and a work in progress, The Lame Shall Enter First (a title alluding to the Gospels, but borrowed from Flannery O’Connor). It’s tempting, though, to view Calvary alongside Martin’s Banshees and Bruges as a sort of unintentional McDonagh brothers trilogy: a “lapsed Catholic” trilogy, or, a bit more accurately, a “bad Catholics” trilogy, since most or all of the characters in Banshees and many of the characters in Calvary are at least minimally practicing.

Beyond Catholic cultural elements and religious and moral themes, these three films share a number of hallmarks common to the brothers’ work: absurdism and humor; gruesome violence and grotesque elements; questions of guilt, punishment, and redemption; and a dark cynicism at least approaching misanthropy or nihilism, though not entirely despairing of hope. Going further, each of the three films is set in a picturesque, ostensibly idyllic location that for its characters becomes a kind of ambiguous limbo, if not a manifestation of hell. The central conflict in each case turns on a deadly grievance among male characters, with Gleeson playing one of the principals as a man with a capacity for violence who, in a pivotal third-act moment, meets a potentially deadly threat with Christlike nonresistance. A female character in at least two films represents some sort of grace, while children and animals embody innocence, and killing a child or a beloved pet, even accidentally, may be regarded as an unthinkable crime, beyond all hope of forgiveness or atonement. Scenes set in confessionals figure in all three films, but they’re settings more of conflict than of reconciliation.

The alarming extremism of Colm’s commitment evokes certain demanding sayings of Jesus in the Gospels: the parable of the pearl of great price that is worth selling all one has; the warning regarding the necessity of “hating” loved ones in order to follow Jesus; and, most strikingly, the exhortation to prefer to cut off one’s hand and pluck out one’s eyes rather than sin.

Presumption and despair

When In Bruges debuted in 2008, its overtly religious and spiritual themes attracted considerable attention from both Christian and secular cinephiles. The film’s blend of talky comedy and strong violence elicited obvious comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, whose work also includes scattered religious references (most memorably Samuel L. Jackson’s heavily fictionalized “quotation” from Ezekiel 25:17 in Pulp Fiction). The religious elements in Bruges, though, are considerably more persuasive. While visiting a museum in the titular Belgian city, a pair of hitmen, Ken (Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), contemplate a number of grim works of religiously inflected art, notably the Hieronymus Bosch triptych The Last Judgment, and their discussion of heaven, hell, and purgatory leads them to wrestle with their conflicted guilt over their past actions. They also visit Bruges’s Basilica of the Holy Blood, where Ken climbs the massive staircase to the upper chapel to touch the medieval reliquary said to contain the actual blood of Jesus.

Religious Themes