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Posts Tagged ‘Martin McDonagh’

I have to confess that I do occasionally have a problem remembering which of the McDonagh brothers (John Michael and Martin) is which. Which one of them wrote and directed In Bruges? Which one did Calgary? Or Seven Psychopaths? Or The Guard? Luckily this is a less serious issue than it could be, as no matter which McDonough is responsible, the films themselves are almost always witty, thoughtful, and provocative in a good way. And so it proves with Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, yet another film which finds itself almost uncannily positioned to comment on and possibly take advantage of the unusual moment in which the United States finds itself.

The film opens just outside the small town of the title, and finds Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a teenage son, being struck by a moment of inspiration when she sees three long-disused billboards near her home. Some months earlier, her teenage daughter was raped and murdered, and there has been no word from the police department about this for a very long time. Incensed by the lack of progress, or indeed communication, Mildred rents the boards and puts up a set of messages highlighting the apparent inertia of the cops, in particular the police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

Willoughby, a basically decent man, is frustrated and irritated by this, but he has deeper personal problems to deal with and is inclined to be understanding. However, one of his men, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is somewhat less inclined to show empathy. Dixon is a little bit dim and more than a little bit bigoted, and happy to use any means necessary to get Mildred off the police’s case. Neither side seems willing to consider moderating their position, and with Willoughby stuck in the middle, it seems that only a further tragedy stands any chance of bringing resolution to the situation…

This is another case of a film proving slightly tricky to review, mainly because there is a significant plot element that doesn’t feature in the trailer, presumably because McDonagh wants it held back as a surprise for the viewer (despite the fact it’s established very early on in the story). The trailer, more to the point, seems to be pitching Three Billboards as a kind of offbeat, somewhat Coenish black comedy. And I’m really not sure that this does the movie justice at all.

There are certainly moments of comedy here, and the film is shot through with darkness of the most uncomfortable kind, but this does not feel like a film really setting out to amuse the audience. It would be equally easy to describe it as simply being the story of a woman setting out to confront the forces of male establishment prejudice, but I don’t think that this is what the film is truly about, either.

Certainly, it touches on elements of racism and bigotry, not to mention police brutality, but there’s almost a sense in which the film can’t pass a potential issue without trying to be provocative about it, from homophobia to child abuse in the Catholic Church. But touching on a subject doesn’t mean the film’s actually about that thing, and if anything, Three Billboards seems to me to be a deeply serious film about a number of things, one of them being anger and guilt. (McDonagh himself has said the film is about rage.) It seems to me that the film is suggesting that Mildred is provoking and sustaining fury as a coping method to help her deal with her own issues of grief and regret: McDormand’s performance, a masterclass of intensity and quiet stillness, certainly seems to suggest as much, as do the numerous striking moments in which the film pauses to become almost lyrically meditative.

If the film does have a message for the United States today, it is a more complex and (perhaps) less easily digestible one than the simple platitude that prejudice is bad. Mildred is an essentially good person, the film makes clear, but a good person whom events transform into an implacable righteous avenger. The problem is that a righteous avenger can be just as destructive a force as a thuggish, reactionary brute like Rockwell’s character, if neither of them is prepared to compromise. And so it transpires – neither side refuses to show any consideration for the other. Mistakes are made. Misunderstandings occur. People caught in the crossfire are the ones who suffer.

It seems to me that here McDonagh is creating a parable about the modern United States, which (as far as many observers can tell) is currently as divided and factionalised as it has been in living memory. The tendency towards unthinking demonisation of the opposition, and a lack of basic kindness and decency – these are other things that (again, it seems to me) Three Billboards is about, but they could surely equally be said about the culture wars taking place in America currently. If the film ultimately suggests that there is hope for some kind of rapprochement and a new kind of unity, then it is couched in the most unsettling terms – then again, there are few films which conclude on such a finely judged note of ambiguity and ambivalence as this one.

McDormand and Rockwell are both really excellent (in an example of just the kind of inflexible ideological puritanism that the film appears to be warning against, it has been suggested that Rockwell should not receive any awards for his performance in this film, as it is apparently morally wrong to reward someone for playing a racist), but so is Woody Harrelson, who has perhaps suffered for having a somewhat smaller role than either of the others. Then again, this is a film stuffed with classy, well-judged performances. The only very mild issue is with Abbie Cornish’s appearance as Harrelson’s wife – I think it’s probably a good performance, but the fact that it’s impossible to work out what kind of accent Cornish is attempting is inevitably a bit distracting.

There are plenty of laughs in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I think this is a very serious film that has the nerve to try and tackle some big subjects, both emotional and topical. As a result it includes a lot of a material which I suspect many viewers will find off-putting. This really is a drama, and one that goes to some extremely dark and potentially upsetting places. But it’s also a highly intelligent and very humane film, even if the notes of optimism it eventually strikes are inevitably somewhat muted. Most likely one of the films of the year.

 

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The last ten years have seen the adoption by all the big studios of something called day-and-date releasing: this is the strategy whereby a new film gets released globally on pretty much the same day. It’s supposed to help combat movie piracy, but one of the fringe benefits is that the rest of the world gets to enjoy new blockbusters on the same day they come out in America, thus putting an end to the phenomenon of people timing their holidays in order to catch a particular film as early as possible.

Day-and-date is still very much the norm for most big movies (although apparently Skyfall came out in the USA later than virtually anywhere else so as not to clash with the election), but for smaller offerings a degree of slippage in the schedule is not unknown. So it is with Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths.

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Back in October I got a message from an American friend making sure I was planning to see (and then, with grim inevitability, write about) this particular film. I wasn’t, at the time; indeed I’d never heard of it. I’d heard of McDonagh, not so much for his well-received films like In Bruges but because he was the brother of the director of The Guard, my favourite film of last year. But I’m a sucker for requests and the cast list for this film looked interesting, at least. Paying only the most cursory attention to the plot synopsis, off I went, anticipating a comedy-crime-thriller. Hmmmm.

In the film, scripted by Irish writer Martin McDonagh, we meet an Irish writer called Marty (Colin Farrell), currently seemingly adrift in Los Angeles. He is struggling with his latest project, a script entitled Seven Psychopaths, mainly because he doesn’t have enough psychopaths and no ideas for what they’re going to do anyway. Real life around Marty is about to get somewhat psychopathic, anyway: a masked killer nicknamed the Jack of Diamonds is slaughtering his way through the LA mob, Marty’s strange best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is involved not only with the lovely girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko, very briefly appearing) of a nutso gang boss (Woody Harrelson), but also in a lucrative dog-napping business with the strangely devout, or should that be devoutly strange Hans (Christopher Walken, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out there even by his standards).

Billy also wants to help Marty write the movie, and to help with the research has placed an advert inviting every psycho in California to get in touch with them and provide material for the script. Up turns Tom Waits, carrying both a live rabbit and a metaphorical torch. Meanwhile Marty is having second thoughts about the whole psychopath angle – is there no way he can do an action movie called Seven Pacifists instead?

There’s a weary old saw about how some movies review themselves – this usually meaning that the film in question is self-evidently either good or bad: you can just write about what’s up on screen without having to think too much about expressing the finer points of its quality. Seven Psychopaths also has a go at reviewing itself, but in a slightly different way.

This is because the script of the movie that Marty and Billy are writing bears an uncanny resemblence to the script of the movie they are actually appearing in – characters from the film start appearing, mixed up in the slightly awkward situation he, Billy and Hans find themselves in when Billy kidnaps the gang boss’s prized Shih Tzu. Most obviously, at one point Marty decides that their script will take a bizarre and uncharacteristic left turn – at which point his real life starts to follow exactly the same route.

It sounds cringingly knowing and clever-clever, but this element appears so subtly and unexpectedly in what starts off as a gonzo LA comedy-drama that I was quite taken in by it. It makes it hard to shake the suspicion that when someone starts criticising Marty’s writing in the film, this is really Martin McDonagh owning up to a few flaws in his own script – most obviously, Marty is criticised for writing very few, and very small parts for women, most of whom are decorative and also meet untimely ends. Does this excuse the way Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Linda Bright Clay are used (and sometimes abused) in this movie? Does saying ‘I know I’ve been bad’ excuse you for being bad? I’m not sure.

Anyway, this layer of cleverness, added to the talent at work throughout the movie, results in something which is a huge amount of slightly guilty fun: very violent, profane, and more than a bit absurd. This is not to say that there are not serious and even quite moving moments along the way – there’s a very tense scene in which Walken’s sick wife is cornered by Harrelson, who’s out to get him but doesn’t realise who she is. This could have come out of a serious thriller. As the film goes on, though, it drops these occasional pretences and becomes much more about Sam Rockwell, who’s off the leash as a kind of demented idiot-savant who – not inappropriately – seems to have lost track of the boundary between reality and fiction. Rockwell is very funny and gives a very big performance, but then so is Harrelson, so is Walken. Colin Farrell is stuck in the middle playing the straight man and actually does a really good job of it.

I haven’t seen a story crack itself open and start to play with its own guts in quite this way since Adaptation., and it may indeed be that Seven Psychopaths is not quite so accomplished, never quite escaping its slightly wearisome Tarantino-esque trappings. Certainly there are distinct signs of the film wanting to have its cake and eat it, particularly as the climax unfolds (‘unfolds’ is much too tidy and straightforward a word for it, of course).

Seven Psychopaths is certainly satisfyingly clever and different, and – being totally wrong-footed by it to begin with – I enjoyed it immensely, for a while even wondering if the McDonagh family might be about to (figuratively) take home the (non-existent) film of the year prize for the second year in a row? I think not; while The Guard plays similar games with genre tropes to a lesser degree, it’s built around a genuine piece of characterisation with a proper supporting story. Seven Psychopaths just thrashes around demolishing itself and other Hollywood thrillers to hilarious effect – not that this is in any way not a worthwhile undertaking, nor one which is executed without skill, panache, and energy. Well worth watching.

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