“You Know, If You Hadn’t Stopped Coming To Church, You’d Have A Little More Understanding Of People’s Feelings…”
With the likes of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths on his curriculum vitae, Irish screenwrite Martin McDonagh has become renowned in the entertainment trade for snappy and subversive tales which blend the darker traits of the human spirit with rib-tickling comedic undertones, and his return this week with the hotly anticipated jet-black drama, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an interesting example of a movie which has both equal measures of excellence and fundamental, unforgivable sin. Primarily following Frances McDormand (Fargo, Hail, Caesar!) as the grieving, unpredictable and potty mouthed Mildred Hayes, who in her attempt to call out the workings of the local police force after her daughter’s violent death instinctively causes anguish within the community with the implementation of the titular billboards, McDonagh’s latest carries all the traits and features you would expect when glancing over the director’s previous endeavours on film, but with primary characters within the narrative which ease on the side of utmost vulgarity and gaping plot inconsistencies which become too jarring to ignore, Billboards is a movie which is the epitome of a picture where the whole is lesser than the sum of its’ parts. Whilst performances all around are seemingly note perfect, with obvious plaudits directed to McDormand’s fiery justice seeker and Sam Rockwell’s idiotic, racist and utterly despicable local law enforcer, Officer Dickson, the real heart and centre of the piece is undeniably Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff Bill Willoughby, whose key involvement in the direction of the narrative is the only true character where emotional investment and engagement is truly viable.
Whilst the character of Hayes has a self defined purpose due to the tragic loss of her daughter, her penchant for unwarranted violence and vulgar sensibility highlights the key flaw in a script which not only is tonally wild, but isn’t comedic or sharp enough to come across anything other than played with a straight face, and for a movie which tackles poorly a wide range of issues ranging from rape to institutionalised racism, McDonagh’s script is one of the most nihilistic portrayals of the human race presented on screen in recent memory. With the comedic elements completely absent therefore, the continued use of petulant swearing and offensive set pieces do ultimately lead to extensive nitpicking in terms of plot inconsistencies, with the most obvious being a complete lack of any realist sense of consequence for any of the major players within the piece, with people being violently attacked in front of gazing witnesses, children being assaulted and police stations being burnt to the ground, with the characters at fault then seemingly left without any sense of punishment, and for a movie whose primary basis is Hayes’ search for justice, the feel of the movie just seems terribly conflicted and contradicted. Finally, we get to the character of Rockwell’s Officer Dickson, whose revolting, old-fashioned sensibilities and racist, sexist and bigoted views are seemingly forgotten over the course of the movie’s runtime, with McDonagh handing the character over to the audience as a sort of redemptive figure of hope which I completely and utterly rejected, and whilst Rockwell’s performance is undeniably brilliant, his respective character isn’t and whilst Billboards is indeed brilliantly made and is helmed by a flashy pace which zips along nicely, the key message and feel of the movie ultimately left me with a nasty taste in my mouth, and for a film to successfully manage that, McDonagh’s latest is a film I can admire but ultimately cannot bring myself to like.