THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017, Martin McDonagh)
Appeals to the 19 year-old version of me who was studying existential philosophy in college, but also appeals to my aesthetics and sense of humor, so this was a win all around. McDonagh seems to have perfected his pet genre of funny, dark melodrama that includes the stagey, two-handed chat-fest between introspective hitmen of IN BRUGES and the frustratingly empty and nihilistic meta exercise in revenge and forgiveness that was SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. This is the sweet spot: great dialogue, characters defined by action (and defined in interesting ways, ensuring there’s no good unsullied by some darkness, and no evil without a little goodness), and a huge depth of feeling throughout. A mid-film sequence (involving the first of Chief Willoughby’s wise, amusing, and bittersweet letters read in Harrelson’s characteristically humane voiceover) and the final five minutes are both profound enough to choke up even the most cynical members of the audience.
Within the first three seconds of the movie, which are the first two notes of the score, you’ll recognize Carter Burwell’s hymnal oboe sounds (the end credits confirmed for me Burwell’s contributions, though I’d have recommended a lawsuit if this wasn’t him), recalling MILLER’S CROSSING and other fine Coen brothers movies, a distinct signpost that we may be dealing with Coen-ish themes and modes of storytelling. And we are — not only in the casting of Joel Coen’s wife (FARGO’s Frances McDormand), but in the world view of funny, lovable Midwestern hicks caught up in the existential dilemma of a vast, quiet world uncaring for their silly dramas (bickering spouses, petulant teenagers, being an outcast dwarf, having cancer, misplacing your badge, etc.) and indulging in the entropy of a human condition reliant upon chaos, violence, injustice, confusion, miscommunication, prejudice, unhappiness, loneliness, and death.
There’s another British filmmaker who traffics in working class stiffs burdened by life’s uncaring lurch, and that’s Mike Leigh — whom I thought of a few times during this, so I wasn’t surprised to see that his longtime editor Jon Gregory cut this film. Gregory favors rhythm and comic juxtaposition over straight continuity; a more fluid, realistic editor might not have found the warm laughs that mark THREE BILLBOARDS.
Most of those laughs come from McDonagh’s witty dialogue (“Penelope said ‘begets’?”) but often that dialogue is focused on delivering the life-is-meaningless, create-your-own-reasons philosophy that would make everyone from Nietzsche and Camus to Wright and Beckett proud: “We’re all dying,” “We’ll figure it out along the way,” etc. And while everyone is basically a mouthpiece for McDonagh’s point of view, this doesn’t feel like a series of pithy platitudes — they come honestly out of the story. There isn’t a lot of backstory to flesh out this large cast; instead we learn about these people through decisions they make and actions they take, Johnnie To-style. And everyone in the cast is up to the task. This includes PSYCHOPATHS veterans Rockwell, Harrelson, and Cornish, plus the amazing McDormand, an underutilized Dinklage (I don’t watch GAME OF THRONES so I feel like this guy has been missing since THE STATION AGENT and wish he was all over the place) and the hilarious, suddenly ubiquitous Samara Weaving (Hugo’s niece, whom I hadn’t heard of a few months ago, and now with THE BABYSITTER and SMILF, turns out she’s quite a talent).
McDonagh may still include a few too many writerly contrivances, misleading for the sake of point-making, and may still not trust his camera enough to say things without putting it in the script. But for a guy who makes a movie every four or five years, he’s improving by leaps and bounds, and he’s finally found a narrative rich enough and timely enough (it isn’t an accident that the group of townsfolk who band together to rebuild the billboards that protest a largely white, male police authority is made up of two women, two blacks, and a dwarf) to support those stinging, hilarious barbs that push all of my existentialist buttons.