Morality Played: A Review of Martin McDonagh’s ‘Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri’

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If you’re someone who’s interested in cinema or screenwriting odds are at some point or another you’ve heard a movie be dismissively described as “overwritten.” But what does the word “overwritten” actually mean? Ask someone who uses the term to define it for you, and you’ll get a Potter Stewart type of response. “I know it when I see it.” Since nobody can explain what they mean by it, I’ve always believed there is no such thing as an “overwritten” screenplay. The script is either good or bad. The notion that someone could put too much effort into writing didn’t make sense to me… Until I saw Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri 

This is not to say that Three Billboards is an incompetent movie. In fact, one of the most fascinating and irritating things about the movie is the fact that it manages to work fairly well despite being plagued by some major problems. The biggest problem is that there seems to be something rotten in the movie’s foundation. A lack of clarity in its message. And that is precisely when the term “overwritten” came to my head. Because the core the movie is either too opaque or simply empty, it was almost as if I could see right through the movie and all the way down into writer-director Martin McDonagh’s head. I could see the gears in his brain working, complicating the plot, and choosing how he was going to shock the audience at every turn. I wasn’t watching a movie, I was watching someone write a screenplay.

But let’s stop talking in generalities and get down to the example at hand. Three Billboards stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a divorced woman whose teenage daughter was tragically raped and murdered. It’s been a several months since the crime occurred, and the police force hasn’t come anywhere near to cracking the case. Frustrated, Mildred decides to rent out three billboards along a solitary road and make her case through advertising: “Still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?” A lot of people in town aren’t happy with Mildred’s recriminations of the town’s law enforcement. Especially the local cops, which include a dim-witted bigot played by Sam Rockwell.

The movie plays with morality but is not a morality play. Traditionally, morality plays were religious narratives in which an allegorical protagonist made his way toward the righteous path. Martin McDonagh is not interested in showing us the righteous path, but in showing that finding the right path might be harder than we thought. McDonagh, who was recognized as a major playwright before he migrated to film, has a very particular writing style. Most of his works uses foul language and extreme violence. Most of his work is also set in Ireland, so he measures the violence with the philosophy of Catholicism in order to examine questions about morality and redemption.

On this occasion, McDonagh’s mind is set on a very specific goal: establish moral complexity. It’s not long into the film that we learn that the targeted Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later, in the middle of a verbal confrontation, the Chief coughs blood right onto Mildred’s face. He might be neglecting the case, but he is just human. This sort of pattern repeats itself over and over again throughout the film. We thought we knew who a character was, until the next scene reveals something unexpected about them and suddenly they’ve been put under a different light. It happens so often it becomes exhausting, especially once the movie reaches its climax and we’re left unclear on what exactly the movie is trying to say. And whether its message has any real value.

Things are more complicated than they seem. Morality is not as cut and dry as our leaders make it seem. That seems to be the message, which sounds a little thorny in 2017, especially coming from the film industry. I don’t need to remind you that some of the most powerful men in Hollywood are finally paying for the sexual crimes of their past. The recent wave of victims opening up about abuse in the industry is only getting bigger. With this mind it’s fair to say Three Billboards speaks to our current moment in contradictory ways. On the one hand, we have an indignant woman trying to find justice for a daughter who was abused in the most savage way. On the other, focuses on Sam Rockwell’s bigoted cop character finding his way towards redemption.

Rockwell’s character is a pretty nasty fellow. If the movie isn’t quite excusing his behavior, it is at least making choices that will raise a couple eyebrows. I’m thinking particularly of the movie’s use of language. The characters in this movie say a lot of reprehensible things. They drop multiple N, F, and C words. Some of them do truly horrible and violent things. They punch, kick, beat, and set fire to each other. The kind of behavior that would be reprehensible in the real world, but is often shrugged as “bad-ass” in the movies. McDonagh understands that his characters are behaving badly. He has to, because he wants to redeem them. He wants to hate a character, than empathize with them.

To his credit, he comes close. But it’s hard to buy the redemption story when McDonagh leaves the tools he is using so nakedly visible. We can see the final product in his head, and we can see what he’s sacrificing in order to get there. Consider, for instance the minority characters. There are a few black characters in the movie, none of which have real personalities and are -when you get down to it- mostly used as props in the escalating tensions between Mildred and the police. They’re a litmus test. They stand to the side while the plot keeps moving forward, and are called to the foreground only to let the main characters react to their blackness. Meanwhile, the treatment of the female characters (other than Mildred) is similarly simplistic.

This problem grows even larger when you consider it in conjunction with the movie’s comedy. There are a lot of scenes that play for laughs in this movie. Almost every moment of deep drama or violence is bookended by comedic scenes. The audience I was with laughed loudly when characters used inappropriate language or did inappropriate things. But what was the purpose of all this? Did McDonagh think that because he had black characters in the background he could get away with these off-color lines? Was it all just an exercise in seeing how badly a character can be behave and still be redeemed? Maybe the audience’s laugh was one of discomfort.

And yet, I said that the movie mostly works, and I meant it. A lot of this falls on the shoulder of the actors. McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell all do very strong work as the main characters, and they’re helped by a sturdy, deep bench of supporting players. Peter Dinklage and Clarke Peters immediately come to mind as doing much more than required with their parts. But a crucial part has to do with McDonagh’s expertise as a writer. He knows how to craft a story and how to keep an audience engaged.

That’s why Rockwell’s redemption arc almost works. McDonagh’s secret is to keep the plot moving forward. There is a lot of plot in this movie. Every scene either reveals something unexpected about a character or features an unfortunate incident that moves the plot forward. But if every scene features a shocking revelation, then nothing is shocking anymore. We seize to believe in the movie as a unifying world, and only as a story crafted to make us react in specific ways. We stop thinking about Mildred, her daughter, or any kind of moral complexity, and we can only focus on McDonagh’s hand. There is a good movie hidden somewhere in Three Billboards, one that focuses on the characters’ truth and not in the audience’s reaction.

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