Fintan O’Toole, lead critic with The Irish Times, once labelled him a genius and, with his new film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, writer/director Martin McDonagh may yet pin that badge on his lapel, along with the many other gongs and accolades that this film will garner for the London-Irish artist.
Previous film work includes the dreadful Seven Psychopaths, so opaquely ironic Martin McDonagh had to give extensive interviews to explain just how ironic the violence and the misogyny were meant to be and In Bruges, a brutal, tasteless and wasteful crime romp round a city which doesn’t seem to have any police force or visitors, unlikely in such a large Belgian tourist halt.
His stage work, lauded by critics and beloved by London and international audiences, were exemplars of post-modern paddy-whackery, with drunkenness, madness, oddness and violence as the standard tropes.
Yet even at its worst, Martin McDonagh’s work shows a marvellous grasp of the form and practice of drama, on stage and on film, of the history of theatre and film, and a command of the craft of writing for both dramatic forms. In Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, all of his many great gifts are in place and used to terrific effect.
The story is a small gem. A woman, Mildred Hayes, played to the heavens by Frances McDormand, demands justice and fair treatment from the local police authorities. She puts up billboards voicing her demands, using the engine of the Great American Dream – advertising – to make her point. The Police Chief is an honourable man, who sustains the moral core of the film by his letters from the grave, a telling device which brings ‘God’ into play in a unique fashion. The action, based in a small town, begins to take on an epic quality, when townspeople line up, when divisions appear, when death, violence and destruction are visited on people and buildings. There is awesome use of fire throughout. Burning billboards echo the Klan’s burning crucifixes, as the Southern states of the USA struggle to undergo change.
It is the change in the character of police office Dixon, played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell, that turns the arc of the film to its muted conclusion. He is racist and violent, torturing prisoners and beating up citizens. He appears as a modern neanderthal, yet he undergoes a transformation by fire, literally, while one of the Police Chief’s letters from the grave speaks to him on moral possibilities and on the bounty of love. Dixon edges towards those possibilities, aided by an act of kindness in a hospital ward where he lies, swathed in bandages. That kindness is delivered by the person Dixon threw out of an office window. Great pain, great pathos and great humour.
One liners rip through the film, as do extended, often comic, speeches on moral and political themes. When the priest comes to her house to ask Mildred Hayes to take down the billboards, she riffs on the relationship between the churches and urban street gangs, where collective culpability for crime comes into play. She could have included banks and corporations. She chucks the priest out of her house. Mildred’s challenge of meeting the cost of the billboards highlights the challenges facing many American citizens of accessing justice and fair treatment.
There is violence and oddness, misogyny and sentimentality, as in earlier work by Martin McDonagh. Why are the two young women presented as dumb and naive? Why are Dixon and his fellow police officers so violent and Keystone Cop-like? Is the dwarf character in it purely for a laugh? Is the move away from violence believable at the end, delivered as the two most violent characters in the film journey away from Ebbing and the tragedies there? And look out for the tortoise crossing Dixon’s mother’s lap, as he gives her an uncharacteristic caress? Is this the same tortoise, representing the slow passage of time, from Tom Stoppard’s great play, Arcadia? And like Arcadia, is this story occurring, not in a real place, but in art-land, a story-ville, where it is film not urban geography which delineates the place and where the townspeople, rarely seen close to the action, are like we viewers, an audience?
If you liked Fargo, you’ll like this film, mainly because Frances McDormand is superb and the story is brilliant and brilliantly told. If you liked Manchester by the Sea and its treatment of male violence in small-town America, you’ll like this film. If you enjoy well-made, well-acted films from America, which are not the thin soup offered by the dreadful Star Wars and Blade Runner franchises, then Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is highly recommend.
Hats off to Martin McDonagh, the genius redeemed.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri:
An interview with Martin McDonagh: