Friday, January 19, 2018

"Style Over... Everything Else - Notes On 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Middouti'"

   Writer Martin McDonagh made a big splash in the theater when he was 26.  He subsequently branched out into movies, his latest offering, which he also directed, Three Billboare Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

(How’s that for uncharacteristic concision?  Whose compact assertion I risk squandering through excessive patting myself on the back.

Nope.  I’m out.)

An artiste who strikes gold early faces the danger of believing they have successfully “Cracked the Code” and are creatively infallible.  An artiste who directs their own material?

WRITER/DIRECTOR:  “What do you think?”

DIRECTOR/WRITER:  “I like it.”

WRITER/DIRECTOR:  “What a coincidence.  So do I.”

I have written earlier about a McDonagh play I saw called The Beauty Queen of Leelane.  Formulating Conclusion:  A recognizable M.O.

Original writing. 

Deficient narrative policing. 

(Note:  In the theater, the playwright, especially if successful, has, contractually, the last word.  The director may offer suggestions, but the playwright is free to hum impatiently which they do so.)

Three Billboards gives us an intriguing “Jumping Off” point:

Seven months after the atrocity, a grieving mother of a raped-and-murdered teenaged daughter pays for three adjacent billboards, on which she challenges the local sheriff for making no progress uncovering the assailant.

The obstacling “wrinkle” in her unwavering rancor?

The likable sheriff is dying of cancer.

And off we go.

It’s a promising premise.  And the acting, especially the leads:  Frances McDormand, (married to one of the Coen brothers; I am not certain which one, but it only matters that they are), Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell – are unilaterally rewardingly stellar.  

I was also impressed by the overall casting.  Although an accompanying family member pronounced it, “Too ‘Hollywood.’”  Meaning, the participants were too “glossy” (as in actors’ promotional “8-by-10 ‘Glossies’.”)  I myself have no problem believing there are attractive people in Missouri.  Those Hollywood “transplants” must have emigrated from somewhere.  The Midwestern air appears to be good for your complexion.

(A Blogger’s Possibly Erroneous Perception:  Since the massive success of Hillbilly Elegy, I have detected a newfound focus on “Heartland” difficulties.  As in politics, the “Big Cities” feel seemingly eclipsed by the provincial problems of the unglamorous folks who stayed put.  Though it could be I am just noticing this more.)

Although Three Billboards’s” storytelling generally held my attention, it, at meaningful junctures, felt annoyingly arbitrary.  (As if the Writer/Director said, “That’s how I want it” and the Director/Writer readily concurred.) 

Among other diminishing infractions, the less than scrupulous storyline includes head-scratching coincidences, characters changing unpersuasively in midstream, and serious actions proceeding without consequence – a guy throws another guy out a window, with no expected constabulary follow-up.

It’s like I told a comedy writer once:  “Your good jokes are ‘Check Marks.’  But your bad jokes count too, in the other direction.” 

By that score, Three Billboards barely breaks even.

However, because of the acting…

Hold on.

For your increased enjoyment and understanding, I shall now pass the baton to the superiorly articulate New York Times film reviewer Manohla Dargis:

“(McDonagh) doesn’t always know his A material from his B, or he doesn’t care; his jokes can be uninterestingly glib, with tiny, bloodless pricks that are less about challenging the audience than about obscuring the material’s clichés and overriding theatricality.”

I could not have put that better myself, or – which is the reason I cribbed it – nowhere nearly as skillfully.

In my view, the director went excessively easy on the writer (who happened also to be the director.)  The actors’ performances ultimately bailed the thing out.

I don’t know. 

Maybe it’s idiosyncratic storytelling makes you a scriptorial standout. 

My Humble Personal Assessment

No creative effort is ever less appreciated because the plot makes more reasonable sense.

For to occur in the future, however, Mr. McDonagh will have to surrender some creative decision-making to somebody else. 

(Full Disclosure:  Which I would never have admitted when I was calling the shots.)

No comments: