Thursday, February 22, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin MacDonagh))


Martin McDonagh? Much-honored playwright and to be honest I've yet to see any of his theater work, but the movies--

McDonagh's debut feature In Bruges has two hitmen cooling their heels in the eponymous city (Why hitmen? Because they're cool.). He manages to create an atmosphere of suspended animation, the drifting snow a metaphor for souls drifting within the city's ancient walls--though said 'souls' are basically Tarantino characters with more wit and inventive profanity involved, laced with Gaelic lilt for that y'know European flavor Tarantino wishes he could evoke (but can't). A couple of gimmicky plot twists and extended gunfights later Bruges remains gorgeous the characters cartoon sketches, only with their heads blown apart.

Seven Psychopaths if anything is a step backwards: McDonagh switches out the gorgeous city of Bruges for the sunbaked flatlands of California (and nearby Joshua Tree National Park), seven psychopaths for the two hitmen (on the presumed theory that more is better) but instead of pretentious discussions of heaven hell damnation redemption we have more Tarantino dialogue--as funny and profane as ever--and Christopher Walken in Prophecy mode, a fallen angel with a pair of uncanny clear eyes. Which makes up for a lot but not everything.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (wrote 'Seven Billboards' before catching myself) is a more earnest stab at winning approval from the critical establishment particularly in the United States and right away a question pops to mind: why a movie set here when his first few plays were set in the Ireland he grew up in and presumably knows well? Has he spent enough time in Missouri (where the movie is set) or Asheville, North Carolina (where it was actually shot), learned something of the people there?

Have to admit the movie starts strong, with the most dramatically fruitful premise of all his big screen efforts to date: Mildred (Frances McDormand) bullies advertising manager Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones, so vivid in Twin Peaks: The Return) into renting her the aforementioned three moldering advertising boards planted along a small road near her house. She paints them a bright blood red and on the red in huge black block letters: "RAPED WHILE DYING;" "AND STILL NO ARRESTS?" "HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?" 

Genius message; what gives the haiku its punch (aside from the blocky-black on blood-red) is the way the words has been broken into three parts, each painted on the board with a loud specific functions. "RAPED WHILE DYING" commands one's notice; "NO ARRESTS" sketches the nature of Mildred's complaint; "HOW COME" drives the accusation home, naming the man being addressed.

But the billboards' real power doesn't come so much from the creativity of their design as it does from Mildred's stony understated anger. She's past tears; she used them up some time ago. She's thought this through but only up to a point (doesn't have the money to keep the boards up past the rented month) which suggests she can't get past the need to prod the police into action--any kind of action.

As for the aforementioned police officer: Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) could be involved in Mildred's daughter's rape and murder and the subsequent coverup only he probably isn't; he's actually been preoccupied with the prospect of dying of cancer. Throwing in a terminal illness is a daring conceit on McDonagh's part, a possibly cheap ploy to complicate the audience's reaction to this walking stereotype of the redneck police chief, only Harrelson's performance is charming enough and weary enough (he matches McDormand's weathered expression with his own stricken gaze) to turn gimmick into dramatic gold, sketching a man who's been excused of all constraints to act the way he sees fit, and he sees fit to respond to Mildred in a simultaneously supportive and passive-aggressive way.

Third leg of this triangle--of hate recrimination regret--is Willoughby's subordinate Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), easily the knottiest character in the picture. Dixon is an unrepentant racist--he's been accused of beating a black man--and Rockwell plays this thuggish buffoon with courageous abandon; bout the time when McDonagh starts to give him more sides than the three he's shown so far (craven slacker, mama's boy, abusive bully) is about the time the movie goes off its rails, when Mildred firebombs the police station.

Say what? (Skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to see the picture!) McDonagh does well enough establishing each of the three characters and their respective sources of angst but with Mildred's firebombing the coincidences and twists start piling on faster than your brain can come up with halfhearted excuses (certainly McDonagh doesn't feel like helping). Why would Mildred seek revenge for someone burning down her billboards when she didn't pay for the extra month's rent anyway (And why is arson such a shock to her--did she think the town would take her provocation lying down?)? Why did Dixon pick that precise moment to start reading Willoughby's letter? Why should Mildred get away with the firebombing so easily (Her friend James--Peter Dinklage, criminally underused--provides a handy alibi, but she's so obvious a suspect shouldn't the police be suspicious anyway)? Why when Dixon gets back the results of the DNA testing does he accept them at face value--shouldn't he at least consider the possibility of a military coverup? Why when Mildred confesses to the firebombing does Dixon accept her confession so readily? Third degree burns hurt, especially on the face--probably hurt even worse over a longer period of time than having one's head blown apart, but hey what do I know?

And why should Dixon change at all? Knottiest question in the whole picture and one that's been worried up and down the internet by many a critic and blogger. Fans love the uncertainty and vagueness; nonfans accuse McDonagh of taking the easy way out, complete with clever nonending; even more virulent nonfans condemn the movie for its implicit racism (Dixon beats up a black man and suffers neither remorse nor consequence; when he decides to help a white woman suddenly we're supposed to applaud him). I think McDonagh tries for uncertainty but without rooting the twists in what we already know of his characters he ends up with Tarantino callowness--change for the sake of change (Mcdonagh's cluelessness towards Dixon's black victim doesn't help). 

If say the director were a John Boorman--another filmmaker who profoundly misunderstood the South--McDonagh could use his uniquely obsessive visual style to produce a Deliverance (a grossly unconvincing drama that is at the same time a great action film) only he has no unique obsessive style; the most he's got visually speaking are the three billboards gleaming redly against the North Carolinian verdure.* Pity, because that first half at least deserves a nod of recognition, if not respect.

(Strange how reality has a way of appropriating fiction--in this case the tragic school shooting in Florida. Someone who saw the film seized the chance to troll pro-gun senator Marco Rubio with their own three billboards. Yes, I concede, McDonagh is justified in making this movie--if only because it provided material for this brilliant parody.

First published in Businessworld 2.16.18

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