Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – Martin McDonagh ***
Some movies wear their pitch on their sleeves. This movie is technically first class: writing, direction, cinematography, even the occasional evocative country music insert – all work well to create a sharp, black, ironic and at times scabrously funny film.
However, McDonah, unlike his previous films in this style: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, sets this in an ostensibly ordinary small town in Missouri where Mildred (Frances McDormand at her dead-pan, wry-eyed best) decides to take on the much-admired local Sheriff Billoughby (Harrelson doing Harrelson) for failing to find the rapist murderer of her daughter killed 7 months before. Like a homespun Avenging Angel Mildred rents 3 defunct billboards on a disused road on the outskirts of town to accuse Willoughby of incompetence and shame him into action. This sets off a Cohen-brothers-like trail of inexorably logical violent mayhem driven by Mildred’s implacable pursuit of vengeance and the law of unexpected consequences.
The trouble is this works if you set your story in an explicitly criminal context; that is. an inherently morally ambivalent world where none of the everyday limits to behaviour are recognised or observed; and violence and death go with the territory. This allows us to put on hold our natural reservations about uncivilised, even brutally violent behaviour: frees us if you will, to laugh, even relish, the well-deserved come-uppance and predictably violent fate of the morally flawed, or just plain bad protagonists.
But here there is no recognizable moral context; no real small town ethos, within which Mcdonagh’s characterisations can remotely develop into anything approaching real characters. Mildred, Willoughby et al aren’t real people rooted in small town America, deeply or otherwise; they are simply characterisations with no life or existence outside Hollywood and the demands of a storyline written, yes to entertain, but essentially to create a successful product that will make a profit. Tarantino country.
The cleverly constructed plot drives this movie: its emotional force, dramatic arc if you will, of grief and revenge, rationalises how all the characters behave. The writing is good enough to create many scenes where we are tempted, seduced, into taking the emotions and motivations seriously. But then the demands of plot and aesthetic style destroys the illusion in favour of what must come next: not because of the credible emotional motivations of ‘real’ characters; but to sustain a cool moral ambivalence and exploitation of violence and aggression that makes us laugh until we think for just a moment about why.
This is very much Cohen-brothers-like territory: and generates much the same response: schadenfreude-based laughter that one wishes one hadn’t responded to so instinctively. Of course it’s just a movie and we’re there to be entertained: and laughing even despite ourselves, can’t be that bad – can it?
Critics generally love this stuff: as will those for whom The Goodfellahs is their favourite movie that they like to re-watch every now and then. There is a kind of clever, sophisticated, amoral ‘knowingness’ that over-praises and over-values this kind of carefully crafted, Hollywood commodity product which commands the confidence of investors because it appeals to our baser instincts (always a safe bet) and makes us feel participants in a kind of ‘cool’ aesthetic that makes those who do not share it seem backward and dull.
Violent racism? – wickedly funny. Dwarfism? Have a laugh masquerading as pathos. Wilfully ignorant, unjustified, misplaced retribution? Oops. Police deputy as a ‘retard’? So stupid he can’t help but be funny; but maybe he’s a good guy underneath – just thick.
“Come on man – it’s just a movie. Don’t take it so seriously.” Ok as long as you remember that a large number of people spent tens of £millions, utilising some of the most talented actors in movies, to produce this subtly conceived, slickly fashioned product to look, sound, and pretend to be about real people, feeling real emotions albeit in extreme circumstances.
The assiduously contrived moral ambivalence this movie exploits to make a buck is perfectly illustrated by the final scene in the film. Ubercool irony: but soulless.