Friday, November 17, 2017
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The less you know about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, the more you will enjoy the film. Which poses a quandry for people who want to write about it and serve a readership (though it does spare me having to fully come to terms with the content).
Here are some spoiler-free obersevations, however.
First, let me declaim that Martin McDonagh is one of my favourite current filmmakers, and certainly my favourite working more or less in the field of black comedy. It is true that none of his three feature films quite equals, in outlandishness, emotional impact or savage bite Todd Solondz' 1998 masterpiece Happiness - which surely (with apologies to Terry Zwigoff, Bobcat Goldthwait, the Coens, and such) is the greatest, most squirm-inducing, and funniest dark comedy of the last 20 years - but they have a bit more weight to them, are bit more socially engaged, more "responsible." Love Happiness as I do, it is impossible not to watch it - the tale of a pedophile and his extended family - in horror the first time through, embarrassed to laugh, unsure it is safe, challenged to find a comfortable moral perspective from which to view it, and even though I've come to love it and accept it and can laugh quite wholeheartedly along now, I'm not entirely sure that it isn't ultimately reducible to a misanthropic self-indulgence, and a guilty pleasure at best, brilliant and funny and, well, pleasurable as it is. And none of Solondz' subsequent films seem to ratify my love for that one, not even his ostensible sequel to it, Life During Wartime, which was the last of his films I attempted, having liked none of the others. (Are Dark Horse and Wiener-Dog worth seeing? Should I care? I don't, that's how much I liked everything post-Happiness).
On the other hand, In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards are an amazing run of wins, showing Martin McDonagh getting more confident and creative each time. Especially if taken in concert with Martin's brother John Michael McDonagh's movies, The Guard and Calvary - which share some similarities in tone and content - there are very interesting thematic recurrences, from rage at Catholic pedophilia (most thoroughly realized in Calvary but relevant to In Bruges and Three Billboards) to playing with politically unacceptable speech to (only in Martin's case so far) an interest in casting dwarves (note: Jordan Prentice, from In Bruges, is NOT Peter Dinklage, who appears in Three Billboards; there was a time that I mistook the men for each other, I am embarrassed to admit). Not sure what that last thing is about - a way of poking fun at taboos about political correctness while still sticking with white men, the safest butt of any joke these days, as their target? - but the fact that Martin McDonagh has worked with two different dwarves in two different films suggests that it is not the actor he is interested in but having a dwarf IN his movies... unless maybe he wrote Three Billboards with Jordan in mind, and then Jordan couldn't do it...
There's also perhaps a politically questionable element of finding redeeming qualities in men who do, say, or believe inexcusable things, in all of these films. Both In Bruges and Calvary have very specific things to say about the nature of forgiveness and redemption, which may connect to the McDonaghs having been raised Catholic (no idea if they were). But it remains that case that Colin Farrell in In Bruges, Sam Rockwell in Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards, and/or Brendan Gleeson in (John Michael McDonagh's) The Guard, all do horrible/ unforgivable things at times, including assaulting Canadian strangers for being presumed Americans (In Bruges); killing a priest (In Bruges); working as hired killers (In Bruges); kidnapping dogs, lying wholesale, and irresponsibly suckering friends into a bloody and violent standoff (Seven Psychopaths); torturing people of colour (Three Billboards); and/or - in all of these films - indulging in epithets that are racist, sexist, or - what do you call prejudice against dwarves, anyways, heightism?* It's worth querying WHY we want to redeem such men: there's something of Clint Eastwood's very forgiving portrait of a cranky old racist in Gran Torino in these characters, especially in the case of Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards. McDonagh makes his characters work harder at their redemption, and - in Three Billboards - balances that tale of redemption against an apparent complete and utter lack of forgiveness for the perpetrator of a different crime. But I could see critics on the left finding fault here, am not entirely sure how I feel about the politics of these movies, ultimately.
But screwit: Three Billboards is really really fun. It's filled with surprises. It relates in interesting and timely ways to "call-out culture," though it predates that. I liked Frances McDormand in it much, much more than I've enjoyed her in any of the Coens' films save for Blood Simple (I thought her characters in Fargo and Burn After Reading were far too much caricatures). She's great. Sam Rockwell is great. Woody Harrelson has started of late to be just too damn Woody Harrelson for me, but his performance is fine and he gets some of the most touching lines. Caleb Landry Jones remains a consitently interesting presence on screen, and gets some really fun lines too; and John Hawkes makes a great asshole ex-husband. I am actually not sure WHAT the political implications of the film are, from its attitude to direct action and vigilantism to the aforementioned redemption of ugly male characters, but it will certainly keep you attentive, and certainly will leave you with food for thought. It might not be a safe film for everyone - it's strange to me that in the age of the trigger warning, movies as provocative as this seem to be universally loved - but it's probably going to prove one of the most well-remembered and regarded movies of 2017. (One of the rare negative reviews of the film also targets McDonagh's choice of who to redeem and why, but it's got a fairly accurate description of the film, if you're looking for more; I've avoided revealing any plot details, however, so you might have a chance to go in fairly fresh, but I agree with this critic, I think, that the film's last act is its weakest; I didn't care, though).
Anyhow, I recommend it.
*And yep, prejudice against dwarves is called "heightism."