Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ★½

Okay. I’m using this review as my opportunity to talk a little about the films of Martin McDonagh, which I watched this week after seeing “The Banshees of Inisherin” last month.

I liked “Banshees.” It was quiet, contemplative, a little mean at times, and quite beautiful. I thought Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson were marvelous, although the standout performances, in my view, were from Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan. I thought the film worked both as a self-contained drama and as an allegory, of sorts, for conflict and especially civil conflict of the kind that forms the setting of the film itself. With that in mind, I thought I would watch the rest of McDonagh’s features, to see if I vibed with the rest of his work.

Unfortunately, I didn’t.

As an homage of sorts to Tarantino, “In Bruges” is very entertaining. Farrell and Gleeson have, again, incredible chemistry together, and I was genuinely interested to see how the film resolved itself, even if the twist was obvious from the beginning. But I was also troubled by the edgelord-iness of the script, the way that the women were terribly underwritten, the way that more marginal people exist in the film only as objects of comedic derision (dwarves) or examples to illustrate severe, almost-subhuman deficiency (Black people).

Ah, but Jamelle! Gleeson’s character was married to a Black woman and we’re clearly supposed to hold the racist dwarf actor in contempt. Yes, you’re right. But that Black woman character doesn’t exist in the film and the racism of the dwarf actor exists, again, for comedic effect more than anything. Those two details seem to exist more to cover McDonagh’s ass than they do to add any depth to the script.

I was less enamored with “Seven Psychopaths.”" I don’t think it’s bad, necessarily — everything up to the (again obvious) twist is compelling, and the beginning of the sequence in the desert is interesting — but I think it has a lot of the same problems as its predecessor. But Jamelle!, here’s my imagined interlocutor again, “Seven Psychopaths” is clearly conceived as a Tarantino parody, right down to the Los Angeles setting and a character who looks suspiciously similar to Harvey Keitel. Those problems — the thinly-written women, the use of Blackness as a synecdoche for subhuman dysfunction, the weird Orientalism — are intentional! It’s the whole point!

I’d say that my interlocutor forgot to mention that we even have, in the film, a Black woman character who isn’t presented as grotesque or contemptible, who is killed by a character who seems to be a degenerate racist. Even still, I don’t think the film successfully manages the hat trick of being a self-aware parody, as evidenced by the climax, which (in my view) is played completely straight. And tossing in an actual Black woman character doesn’t undermine or make-up for the fact that the first Black woman we are presented with, in the film, is presented in the same crass light that McDonagh’s characters in “In Bruges” discussed Black people.

Which brings us to “Three Billboards.” Folks, this movie fucking sucks. Throughout, it plays as if McDonagh was writing from the Big Book of European Cliches About the American South and its Denizens. Its portrayal of small-town American racism and police brutality is shallower than a pie dish. Its portrayal of Black people is, thankfully, a little more nuanced, in that they aren’t totems for dysfunction and seem to exist as the only actually functional people in the film (along with Peter Dinklage, cast in a frankly thankless role). And the dramatic arc of the story, of redemption for a dimwitted, bigoted cop and some kind of resolution for a grieving mother, was strained to point of being unbelievable. In fact, my biggest issue with this film is simply that it is clunky, maudlin and overbearing (the less said about the arc of Woody Harrelson’s character, the better).

What completing this project of watching McDonagh’s films makes me wonder is whether I was too generous to “Banshees.” Perhaps, if I learned a little more about Ireland in the early 20th century, had a bit more familiarity with Irish life and Irish stereotypes, I would find similar problems in that film. Perhaps my own distance is what makes that story more palatable, and my own intimate knowledge of American life makes me look at McDonagh’s American-set films with a more critical, less forgiving eye. In which case, it’s not that McDonagh has somehow grown more nuanced with time, but that I’m a little too ignorant to see when someone else is subject to the same kinds of tropes and, well, insults that I take issue with.

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