Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri Martin
McDonagh (UK USA 2017) Francis
McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 16 Jan 2018; ticket £9.75
Hitchcock used to call the device he built into the beginning of his movies MacGuffins. The MacGuffin in the movie was a plot device that initially appeared important in the film, but in fact quickly worked itself out and was only a lure designed to lead the audience into the movie. It’s a measure of the psychic inflation attached to drama scripting that only an extreme value stimulus such a rape and murder can do the work of the MacGuffin.
As scripted in McDonagh’s Three Billboards, the rape and murder of Angela Hayes is little more than a pretext for the actual concern of his film, which is assertion: self assertion. The core of the McDonagh’s film is the ascendant culture of self assertion specifically in America ( but world wide wherever the tentacles of Western imagery has penetrated). It is the ‘me too’ society where weaponised vulnerability has become the war cry of both the aggrieved and the those who wish to be aggrieved. Mildred Hayes is consumed by the logic of her own action, and Three Billboards gathers pace, the death of her daughter becomes a remote back story.
The destruction or disintegration of community has left people bereft of the means either to vent or assuage their feelings. Hollywood movies legitimising the cult of individual violence have provided instructive models for those feeling disempowered, which is where Mcdonagh’s script picks up the cue as he joins the Coen Bros folk circus. Filmed in one of those small town rural settings, America profonde (so to speak), McDonagh scripts Mildred’s billboard interpolation as a mythic goad that unleashes a plot of spiralling reactive violence, absorbing the pathological imperative of the movie business that violence as an individual response is always justified. The more so if the protagonist is a woman, because women have an equal right to men to incorporate the mythologies of death slaughter and destruction.
But of course the assimilation of violent mythic forms by individuals have their own circuits of amplification. And it is these circuits and their remorseless logic that trap individuals in the psychic matrices of particular aspects of Western culture that have driven moral film makers like Bunuel and von Trier. The spectacle of those consumed by their own desire.
Hopwever McDonagh’s Three Billboards delivers nothing moral. Three Billboards is a farrago, a hotch potch of cross purposes delivering a movie that in the current mode wants to be all things to all women. McDonagh is unable to hold his film/script to its original course. He jump starts its protagonist Mildred with her provocation of employing three accusatory bill boards as a means to vent her frustration at the incompetance of the police. The bill boards serve their inflamatory function, triggering a series of violent shock waves both in the police and in herself as the situation escalates out of control. (interestingly though the police may be for one reason or another not competent, the rest of the community also seems relatively indifferent – even her husband – again highlighting the emotional isolation of individuals)
But McDonagh having unleashed the demons of reaction, starts to tame them. Instead of holding to a probing of the dimension he opens up, he makes a film that cuts every which way; introducing a justifying discourse which degrades the film into soap opera attenuating the vision of violence and reaction pure that drive the scenario. Three Billboards becomes politically correct. Very British. Mildred has to be individually justified; fitted out with a politically correct back story: the abusive violent husband; her own complicit guilt in Angela’s death, her relationship with her son. Three Billboards bulks out its duration with material relating to Mildred’s relationships balanced but not opposed by Willoughby’s relationship with his family. These mitigations coupled with a script that picks up cheap laughs whenever it can as if McDonagh were an aspirant stand up artist, point to McDonagh wanting to make his film Janus–like: to point in two directions: the socio humanist face / the sociopathic face. But of course it dumps Three Billboards in the middle of no where: neither one thing nor another.
Perhaps the fault lies in the way McDonagh has scripted the film. Three Billboards does not look it has been thematically inspired, a vision conceived. It feels like it has been reactively conceived, starting with the idea of the Ebbing billboards and working through each section bolting on the bits and pieces that comprise development and character: Mildred’s complicity in Angela’s death, her abusive husband, the scene in the hospital between Jason and his victim Jerome. It feels like a script held together by bits and pieces of politically correct and psychically appropriate material. This seems specifically true of the introduction of the racial angle / theme when the new man appointed to to take over Willoughby’s office, is black. McDonagh except for the scripted provocation seems totally at a loss about how to develop the black police chief and his place in the implicitely racist culture. Tarentino would have made something of this opportunity. McDonagh seems content to have made a gesture. One more gesture in a movie of gestures.
The film’s integrity is undermined by cloying sentimentality of Willoughby’s last day, which is heavily scripted with good ol’ boy shit. Martin McDonagh might claim this to be black humour or parody, but it is so out of kilter with tone of the movie that this would be a feeble unconvincing defensive response. Likewise the three letters Willoughby writes to be delivered and read after he is dead. This three letter device (used in a different manner but very effectively by Mankievicz in Letters to Three Wives) is exploited by McDonagh as an indulgent opportunity for Woody Harrelson’s voice to purr and broadcast his folksy insights into life character and the importance of love!
Ultimately Three Billboards is heavily compromised by McDonagh’s script that prefers cheap laughs to satire but loses track of its direction. This is characterised by the final script machination. It is a sort of anti climax where we see Jason and Mildred drive off on their revenge mission, but finally undecided whether or not to go through with their plan. Indecision that characterises McDonagh confusion about what type of movie he is making, except perhaps to make a film that has enough politically correct conceit to win an Oscar. adrin neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org