Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, 16th January 2018
Best film of 2018.
Settle down Tourist. We are only three weeks in. Well I am confident that nothing will come along to match this so I stand by my sensationalist claim. You see I spent all of 2016 waiting for a better play than Hangmen, also penned by Martin McDonagh, to come along and it never did. In Bruges is a top 10 ever film for me and The Pillowman is another favourite play. I have not seen all of the five “Galway” plays that Mr McDonagh tossed out in the space of a year in 1994, in the absence of a proper job, but I have read them. I love theatre but trust me, I don’t read many texts, that would be a step too far. But these cried out to be read. Heavens I even think Seven Psychopaths could do with more meta references.
So, as you can see I have a (un)healthy admiration for Martin McDonagh. And now, to cap it all, I read that he is courting the prodigiously talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Even by his high standards though, Three Billboards is a terrific achievement. I believe he has argued in the past that film is a better artistic medium than theatre, (he is transparently wrong in this regard), but the simple fact is, the reason he is such a brilliant film-maker is precisely because he is such a brilliant playwright.
He can tell a story. And he does it in a classically Aristotelian way. Perfect plotting. Take a character, or in this case three characters in the form of Mildred Hayes, the transcendent Frances McDormand, Bill Willoughby, played by a pitch-perfect Woody Harrelson, and Jason Dixon, entrusted to another McDonagh regular, the Sam Rockwell, and present them with problems to solve, or not.
The bitter, careworn Mildred wants justice for her daughter, Angela, who was brutally raped and murdered. The target for her fury is police chief Willoughby, who, we soon learn, is dying of cancer. And one of his officers, Dixon, is a violent racist whose redemption is prompted by Willoughby’s intervention. These major characters, and those supporting the story, could not be more vivid.
Justice, rage and revenge, as we know from other contemporary film directors, (there are echoes of Tarantino and Asian masters here), and playwrights down the ages, are themes that are guaranteed to grip any audience. I think those who have got hooked up on race, the state of America, sexual violence or a host of other themes they think this film should be addressing have missed the point.
Language: well I have no idea how the good and bad people, of Missouri speak, but I know there is poetry here. And you never know what anyone will say next. There is so much small detail to relish in the dialogue. There is spectacle aplenty with a string of WTF scenes and some stunning cinematography. The multiplicity of tone, and “ordinariness” of location, constantly left me searching for cinematic references.
The jerky rhythm that is created from the interplay of plot, character, language and spectacle carries us along breathlessly. What just happened? What is about to happen? Do I like them? Do I hate them? Why did they do that? These are questions you need to keep asking to make a drama come alive. Three Billboards delivers this. Again and again and again. The wonderful score and intelligently curated musical excerpts only add to the story.
McDonagh’s writing is economic and fearless as is his directing. There are multiple occasions where he rushes in where others fear to tread, but he is no fool. Bait and switch followed by bait and switch, but never really stretching credulity, (which is an overrated requirement in naturalist drama anyway). Suffused with violence sure, but also with humanity. And plenty of characters whose primary mode of expression is “f*ck you” which, as well know, is as naturalistic as it comes.
This then is a tragedy full of comedy. Or a comedy full of tragedy. There was another playwright who mastered that art and was unafraid of going straight for the audience’s jugular. Big Will didn’t deal in stereotypes either and the good, the bad and the ugly could crop up on the same page in the same character. And he was wowing them 400 years ago. Further back there were 3 Greek fellows who nailed drama – so good they defined it. All good people to emulate.
Once you strip out the fantasies, the horrors, the rom-coms, the puerile, the childish, the introspective, the experimental, the “real life” dramas, the biopics, the historical, the spys, the super-heroes ….. and so on and so on, there just aren’t that many films that want to take a human story, and make it mythic. I appreciate that those who prefer their entertainment where the violence is frequent, unremarkable and bloodless and the comedy broad, or those who want drama that scrupulously adheres to their world-view of what is just, (best steer clear of Othello then), but, for those of you who prefer your meat a little rarer, (or your tofu a little spicier), then DO NOT MISS THIS.
Predictably I have got carried away. I just think this is an amazing film by an amazing writer. So I’ll stop now. For those of us Londoners who love this man’s work we are in for a couple more treats this year with a revival of The Lieutenant of Inishmore from end June at the Noel Coward Theatre directed by Michael Grandage, (who successfully revived The Cripple of Inishmaan in 2013), with that sex-bomb Aidan Turner playing Mad Paidrac, and with his new play A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter opening at the gorgeous Bridge Theatre in October. This sounds like it will revisit the dark and twisted territory of The Pillowman. I’ve booked it to replace the usual family panto trip.