It’s hard to talk Martin McDonagh without talking Tarantino. Yes, they share stylistic proclivities, but more importantly, when you chart the thematic trajectories of their filmography, you can see that they both arc in parallel. As directors, their (film) careers both begin with celebrations of violence that are merely genre-bending: Reservoir Dogs as a deconstruction of the heist flick, and In Bruges recasting hitman fare as philosophical slapstick.
The middle films are characterized by a fascination with all the ways in which violence is a cinematic construct. Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill express this in their mixtape compositions, borrowing from all of film history to create a stylistic collage of violence and vengeance. Seven Psychopaths accomplishes this effect by other means: McDonagh examines screen violence metacinematically, casting a screenwriter, struggling on his thriller film, into an actual thriller scenario, populated with the psychopathic characters he is reaching to write about. By satirizing the feckless obsession writers have with violence, McDonagh is making a damning claim about the cinematic nature of violence itself: that as a device, it is too easy to employ, and often employed by writers too feeble and unfamiliar with its real-world realities. In other words, screen violence is petty. It’s cheap. It’s not violence at all.
The current era is the most museful. Now, both directors have outgrown their cinematic parameters; their interests lie in the greater philosophy of violence. What are the ethics of violence? How does violence present itself in the deepest parts of our social and political systems? This is the framework I’ve found most useful in approaching The Hateful Eight. The film’s central concern is the possibility of frontier justice. A correct conception of justice requires that it be ethical, and for any conception to be ethical, it must be possible to generalize and systematize it; it has to be lawful. But frontier justice necessarily works outside of the law – after all, that is what makes it frontier justice. Tarantino spends The Hateful Eight allegorizing this contradiction: that the ethics of justice are distinct from the feeling of justice served. If violence is the means to frontier justice, then it’s unlikely to ever be the means for an ethical end.
And so arrives Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a similar star-gazing stroll of a film, whose questions are large, and pleased to be rhetorical. Again, violence and justice are at the forefront, but now we have left the frontier, with only its notions of lawfulness, and have entered into the messy backcountry of actual law-enforcement.
Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a mother whose daughter’s horrific murder case has gone unsolved by the Ebbing police department. The law has failed her. Under the belief that the department’s chief (played by Woody Harrelson) isn’t pursuing the case in good faith anymore, she puts up three billboards on a lonely road that read “Raped While Dying/ And Still No Arrests? /How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The provocation works — not to solve her daughter’s death, of course, but to incite pandemonium among the small-towners, fashioning a war of perception between Hayes and the law, with the sympathetic and the conservative taking their respective sides.
Naturally, this war is essentially a stunt. We learn early on that it’s not that Willoughby is uncaring; it’s that the trail is simply cold, as the DNA evidence hasn’t matched up to any known criminal, and considering the size of the town, the perpetrator was most likely a drifter. Hayes understands this, and in a scene where push comes to shove, she drops the combative act to care for Willoughby.
But the fact is that Hayes has been wronged, and that her anger needs an outlet. When her recourse to the law produces no satisfaction, she appeals to the public – as she tells her ex-husband, all the books say keeping a case in the public consciousness improves the chances of it being solved. But this only worsens her woes: the town’s moral leaders denounce her, men accost her in public, and an arsonist sets her billboards in flames. Out of options, it follows that the only expression she has left is violence.
As you might suspect, the violence in this film accomplishes nothing of value. Certainly, there are moments when we believe violence will accomplish something — a scene comes to mind where Sam Rockwell’s character performs an act so ingenious and untypically brave that we are forced to believe it will deliver closure – but no, this is a story about the futility of vigilantism, and thus a charge on the grand metanarratives we tell ourselves to justify violent thinking. And this critique is not narrowly cinematic: by setting the drama in a world of racial tension, police brutality and gender-based assault, McDonagh is making a timely point about how our fantasies of violence, when left unexamined, transform into predictable societal modes of operation. This is territory that is also masterfully covered in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.
I think in this light, McDonagh is already reckoning with his cinematic legacy. His work is so deftly comic that it’s easy just to take delight in the thrill of the kills. It’s not that I think his brand of wicked glee troubles him; I just suspect he’s searching for a deeper experience, and he’ll continue to make innovative films that explore these themes in even more provocative ways.
But to be fair, this film is a quartz-rich goldmine, and I’ve really only explored one of its many veins. I could write as many words about McDormand’s performance: this film frankly needs her to work, and the feminism she brings to bat here is callous, wily and offensively modern, the fullest expression of the half-made tomboys that typify recent blockbuster fare. But in order that I could do her justice, I’d have to see the film again. And I want to. I really, really want to. As my time at the festival nears its end, Three Billboards is the only film I can honestly say that’s true of.