Martin McDonagh balances comedy and dark subjects to deliver one of the greatest films of the year
Gruesome murders, horrific rape, and heartbreaking abuse don’t sound like the next great plot for a comedy. Of course, these subjects aren’t funny in any way, and if a comedy would attempt to make a joke out of abuse or rape, it would certainly be in poor taste. But with Martin McDonagh as the writer-director, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a successful balancing act that features an Oscar-worthy return from Frances McDormand.
Mildred (Frances McDormand) is angry at the lack of effort being made in her daughter’s murder. To bring awareness, she rents three billboards just outside of Ebbing, Missouri and displaces a horrific message targeting the police forces in her town.
And it’s here that starts a rather unpredictable and dark story full of unsuspected laughs. Yes, you will be laughing at some of the darkest jokes ever put to film, but it’s just so darn funny. McDonagh’s particular brand of pitch-black comedy doesn’t rely on shock. Instead, the comedic lines are weaved in a dramatic story about loss, revenge, and hopelessness. It’s McDonagh’s masterful showcase of timing, precision, and balance that makes Three Billboards such a brilliant film.
Nevertheless, the extremely talented set of actors shouldn’t be overlooked. The cast is filled with brilliant actors all worthy of awards. With performances such as Sam Rockwell, as a bigoted cop, and Lady Bird‘s Lucas Hedges, who is continuing his fantastic year, it undoubtedly elevates the film. However, no one is better than Frances McDormand as the film’s main protagonist. She exists in this world where her actions are warranted, but her morality isn’t so black and white. And this is true for other characters as well, who may seem to be lazy stereotypes used to highlight relevant issues but they quickly become much more complex than at first.
It’s not surprising for someone familiar with McDonagh’s filmography. With films such as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, he’s clearly interested in morality and the ambiguity that surrounds it. Three Billboards plays in similar territory, but this is no doubt McDonagh’s best work on the subject. The real brilliance lies in complex morality surrounding our characters and the relationships between them. It’s a film that embraces ambiguity and isn’t afraid to complicate itself as moves along. And while it may be easy to get caught in its intricate moral play, it’s never the case, in fact, it’s on top of it.
Through this equivocal world, the greatest strength comes from the simple fact that its story is unpredictable. The concept of moral ambiguity is such an abstract concept to grasp, and McDonagh uses it to his advantage. He managed to create a linear story that’s confident in its direction yet still able to surprise its audience. This is mostly due to how binary our views tend to be. With Three Billboards, McDonagh wants to challenge our black and white system and does it quite effectively.
It’s in the process that we find the flaws in our own thinking and McDonagh is aware of our thought process. At its core, it’s a film that challenges our double-edged view of the world, and surprisingly, it manages to reveal itself to be quite an incredible film. Just like McDonagh’s previous work, it’s not there to preach a message so long as it asks you to take a different perspective on life. We’re quick to judge someone’s action, but as Three Billboards points out, we don’t necessarily comprehend the many working parts.
However, McDonagh sure knows how to juggle many working parts. Mixing drama, comedy and dark subjects wrapped in a complex moral play, Three Billboards is a true balancing act that succeeds on all fronts. As much of an excellent film, this may be, it surely isn’t for everyone. But for the people who understand the comedy in the tragic, McDonagh’s latest film is ready to make you laugh at someone’s suicide letter. No, literally.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri comes out December 1.