Friday, March 2, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

The Coen bros have an almost mystical power in how they cultivate both empathy and awkward (sometimes dark) humor from their imperfect characters. Even if they build from a stereotype, it feels like they always end up with real people (and places) - ones they know, have known, or know of. Equally important, the Coens write their characters with genuine compassion. On some level, they understand and love each of them (including their Antagonists).

This approach allows for accountability, dignity, grace, and sometimes even grief. This obviously has a profound impact on how the audience experiences a Coen character (I can't think of one that I ever hated) - which gives us, as Philip Seymour Hoffman said, "a chance to walk out with that person in our hearts", even if they were emotionally disabled. We can still hold onto their humanity.

Martin McDonagh, on the other hand, seems to despise his characters (Dwarfs in particular) - and I must assume, himself as well. I mean, why so much hate Martin? It's not good for you. But I know you have a story to tell about us Americans, cause we can't get right. But if you are going to speak for the people of Missouri, maybe you should spend time with them - maybe visit the cinematic 'Show Me' State. Debra Granik visited, got to know the place, made the film "Winter's Bone" (2010). It was written by a guy who lived there in MO his whole life. Maybe you could have talked with him. But it's obvious you chose Missouri only as a political setting - since principal photography was shot in North Carolina. Worried that we would be too dumb to recognize the political correctness of the location, you lodged the town and state into the abnormally long title of the film. It's not just about Three Billboards, is it Martin? It's really about you. Isn't it?

McDonagh really prides himself on his intellectual superiority above Catholicism (possibly Christianity altogether). Beginning with flashing Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" early in Three Billboards (apparently not knowing that Flannery was a devout Catholic), he hopes to prove his liberalism to the audience. He then offers us the crass and unfunny line "Dixon, you goddamn asshole. I'm in the middle of my goddamn Easter dinner...Sorry, kids." Here he tries to hide his politically correct perspective with non-PC adolescent vocabulary - assuming we are too intellectually disabled (or retarded in his language) to notice. Finally he unloads his real feelings about the Catholic church (likening them to the Crips & Bloods) in a bitter monologue from Mildred who preaches (to a priest) that any abuse in the church makes every Catholic guilty. "Cause you joined the gang, man. And I don't care if you never did shit or you never saw shit or you never heard shit. You joined the gang. You're culpable." Ouch. While I agree with the need for accountability, if Martin were looking in the mirror, he would see the same logic applies to his own industry, particularly the gang who distributed this film, Fox Searchlight Pictures - an American film distribution company within the Fox Entertainment Group, a sister company of the larger Fox studio 20th Century Fox, all owned by Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox. I believe Martin would do well to remember Bob Dylan's wise words - "Your gonna have to serve somebody".

Holding onto Agnosticism by a frayed thread, McDonagh can just barely conjure up a spiritual encounter between Mildred and a deer beneath the billboards. He quickly retracts from this contempative moment by making a joke about Doritos. (Didn't anyone proof-read this thing?) He does the same thing every time grief, guilt, or vulnerability surface - and it feels suffocating. Remember the end of Lebowski, when Walter tosses Donny's ashes to the wind and they blow right into The Dude's face? This is one of the sweetest, earnest, and most honest moments of humor in cinema - perfectly timed - allowing for equal parts sadness, laughter, and empathy. This rarely-to-never happens in Three Billboards, which keeps the audience at an emotional distance. Taking cues instead from Manchester By The Sea, we get toppled by the flashback scene where Mildred tells her daughter Angela "I hope you get raped!" the same day it happens. Failing the courage to explore the guilt & grief, McDonagh prefers Mildred to burn down the police station, kick teenagers in the groin, and demoralize a midget (experiencing consequences for none of those actions). Not yet convinced of his own depravity, Martin's best version of redemption comes from Dixon, the racist white cop, who is prepared to go vigilante by killing word-of-mouth rapists without required evidence. Is that a solution? Well, apparently so, because Mildred joins the cause - taking us to the final scene where McDonagh jumps ship (saying nothing about violence or non-violence or anything else) - and instead chooses to remain safe within the indifferent confines of nihilism. I have to say friends...not only is Martin McDonagh "too clever to be funny, and congenitally incapable of locating a single distinguishing image" (Pinkerton) - he quite simply lacks 'True Grit'.

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