Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 23, 2017 6:03 am 
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Crime and revenge in a Southern town as seen by a mad Irishman

The Irish-British playwright and now filmmaker Martin McDonagh is a unique master of hilarity and violence. This third and deeply puzzling feature film may mix those ingredients less senselessly and astonishingly than his early plays that made him famous, but it nonetheless begins with an act of horrible violence, one we don't see, and follows up with plenty of violence that we do see. The best part about the action is still, as before with this brilliant writer, its audacity, and that we have no idea what's going to happen next. A number of current issues are brought up - female rage and empowerment, police misconduct - and through our bedazzlement we're made to think about them. But as before with McDonagh, along with laughs, surprises, and a terrific cast, it's more a display of his original invention than anything else, and in this case, another display of his strange and unflattering vision of America. (His Ireland isn't any prettier, believe me.)

"Violence begets violence", someone says, and though the possibility of forgiveness is raised, the former theme emerges as most germane to this tale. The initial, unseen violence is the brutal rape and murder of a teenage girl. She was the daughter of Mildred Hughes (Frances McDormand), a steely, foul-mouthed divorced woman who works in some kind of food shop in a uniform (a milieu left sketchy, like many aspects of the town). This tragic outrage took place months ago, and the perpetrator hasn't been found. That leads Mildred, who is angry and eager for revenge, to pay the young agent of the local billboard company, Red Welby (the remarkable Caleb Landry Jones) to put up new signage on the titular three billboards. They are on a road now little traveled, but they gain notoriety nonetheless. They say, successively, like giant, menacing Burma-Shave ads, “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?,” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Red gives her a good deal, but she has had to sell her ex's camper to raise the down payment.

Perhaps this is a good way to get results, perhaps not, but for sure, it means instant conflict - between Mildred and the local police and much of the citizenry, among whom Chief Willoughby is a loved and respected figure. Local TV news gets wind of this and does a story. This makes Mildred notorious, and at war with Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, also in McDonagh's sophomore feature Seven Psychopaths), who despite Mildred's anger directed at him, is a reasonable man who has done nothing wrong. Local police stupidity is focused, instead, within Willoughby's racist, mama’s-boy deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell, another Psychopaths alum), who also gets involved, stealing some of the attention away from Willoughby right away, and taking over when Willoughby mostly, with a bang, fades from the picture. Dixon will be more important later when he develops a strange bond with Mildred, after she carries out an act of violence of which Dixon is an unintended victim. Dixon himself, acting as proxy avenger for his mentor the Chief, attacks Red in what seems a surprising act of senseless violence. Willoughby, who has been dying of cancer, a fact that leaves Mildred cold, also comes to violence. Violence is indeed begetting violence scene after scene, though other local citizens are, presumably, going about their daily lives as usual.

Willoughby has loomed too large in the tale to disappear; he pops up later in epistolary form. McDonagh happily avoids - almost entirely - another artificial device, the flashback, which might have dragged down the often jokey tale terribly, but he introduces a single one of Mildred and her teenaged daughter just before the latter comes to grief, that is as harsh as anything else in the movie. Those letters and that flashback give away McDonagh as the shameless manipulator that he is, always ready to go back and tweak the story to suit himself.

However he may say he prefers writing for films, McDonagh is above all a brilliant playwright. True, he plays well with the cinematic and visual at points here - especially with fire, and the billboards themselves. They are in big black letters on bright red grounds and couldn't be more eye-catching. At one point, like another key locus of the story, they are set ablaze, with Mildred on hand along with her son, Robbie (the gifted Lucas Hedges, underused here), wielding fire extinguishers to try in vain to put them out. But where Three Billboards excels is in its witty dialogue, and in its splendid, theatrical surprises. There are many droll turns of speech, and the action keeps coming, continually, pleasurably jolting us, as in his plays - though if it went on much longer, it would probably leave us benumbed.

This is explicitly the American South, or a fictitious town in the Ozarks, and the theme of racism is duly threaded through. Mildred notes its presence, speaking like a liberal in a racist voice when she grouses that the cops are "too busy torturing niggers" - "torturing persons of color, now," Dixon corrects - to solve crimes. There is also a black officer sent to take over when Willoughby's gone, Chief Abercrombie (Clarke Peters) a reasonable and authoritative man whose first act is to get rid of the stupid, impetuous Dixon. It's also a helpful young black man, Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson), who installs Mildred's new billboard messages, and has backup copies when they get burned. For more minorities, there's an Eastern European Desk Sergeant (Zeljko Ivanek, seen in McDonagh's debut film, In Bruges), and a dwarf, James (the ubiquitous Peter Dinklage), who provides Mildred with an alibi when she commits a highly visible crime.

Men's exploitation of women is another running theme, so Mildred's ex, Charlie (John Hawkes), has a very dimwitted teen girlfriend (Samara Weaving) , and Willoughby's wife (Abbie Cornish) seems just a little too young and pretty. James has frustrated romantic designs, it seems, on Mildred. But who's exploiting who there?

It's a principle enunciated early on by Willoughby that unsolved crimes often are solved later when somebody speaks loosely in a cell or in a bar, and the latter is the case, or so it seems. This leads Mildred and Dixon on a false trail that they decide to pursue anyway, as the movie, done with its violence and astonishments, drifts off, leaving us sated and relieved, impressed as before by McDonagh's audacity and invention and his excellent choice of actors (and ability to get great ones to work for him). One is surprised, though, that his tedious second film Seven Psychopaths did almost as well with critics as his charming debut In Bruges, and puzzled that this one has gotten far more raves than the other two. Three Billboards can entertain, but its action is implausible and inconclusive, its characters are unappealing, and its message is muddled. McDonagh's 2003 The Pillowman is one of the most brilliant plays of recent times. Why doesn't he do more things as rich and intelligent as that?

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, 115 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2017 and showed in about thirty international festivals to wide acclaim. It released in US theaters 10 Nov. 2017. Metacritic rating 87%; In Bruges 67%, Seven Psychopaths, 66%.

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