Black comedy crime dramas with inconclusive endings are almost a genre of their own now. The trick is to keep populating them with well thought-out characters and convincing concrete details, rather than leaning on tropes—in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Martin McDonagh nails that, making a film which is continually unexpected in multiple ways. Clearly the best-known authors of such films are the Brothers Coen, and McDonagh made use of two of their regular collaborators, in the persons of Carter Burwell and Frances McDormand.
It takes a smart composer to score a movie like this—the last thing you want is a soundtrack that overtly directs the audience how to feel about the scenes they’re watching, but at the same time the neutrality of the narrative voice is always illusory, and the music needs to support the tale-telling actively. Carter Burwell achieves this balance as well as he always does, in a soundtrack which combines his original scoring with well-chosen popular songs. Frances McDormand leads an ensemble cast of exceptional depth and ability, including Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrleson, Peter Dinklage, and in a small, off-the-poster role, one of my favourite actors, Clarke Peters.
So what to say about this film? I loved it. It’s more or less made-to-measure for me: I hate tidy endings, I hate glib insights, I hate serious work that takes itself seriously, and I hate simple or obvious characters. Three Billboards has none of those things: what it does have is creative ambition, and risk-taking. It’s the kind of ambition that’s probably invisible to people who think, say, Schindler’s List is the acme of the serious drama: it’s the ambition to tell a story that, while it is in many ways stylised and artificial, has the aleatory, unruly character of the sequences of events that we’re likely to encounter in our real lives. This is no small ambition. A tale told is by definition bounded, finite, and intentional. Even one like this, which resists conventional narrative closure, is a material utterance composed of fixed and finished elements, which are constructed and polished in production until the whole achieves rhetorical coherence—we don’t watch it and think ‘not likely, mate, that would never happen’, we think ‘oh shit, that happened!’
And yet this picture feels as open and flexible as life. Things happen, they emerge, they rupture whatever certainties we are beginning to discern, until we feel as though the scope of the narrative’s possibilities are bounded in the same way as our daily grind. A train crash is unlikely, but you know what? It could happen—not as an arbitrary or whimsical assertion of the director’s privilege, but as a calamity that cuts through the lives of characters we care about. Because that’s an obvious prerequisite to the success of such a rigorously unformulaic movie: it needs to secure our sympathy and interest for its protagonists.
That several of its central characters seem to have antagonistic interests is important here—because this isn’t the sort of film that asks its audience to believe that some people are good and some people are bad. So Frances McDormand’s character is a no-brainer: a woman mourning the rape and murder of her teenage daughter and trying to spur the police into continuing the investigation will obviously have our sympathy. However, she does a lot of aggressive, irresponsible things, with little concern for their impact on her community or her surviving child, and rarely fits the mould of the saintly, grieving mother. Woody Harrelson’s cancer-stricken police chief is similarly unpredictable, an empathic and intelligent man, the climax of whose arc is an act of supreme selfishness, through which he demonstrates a taste for capricious and manipulative behaviour. But most courageous of all is Sam Rockwell’s brilliantly portrayed violent, alcoholic, racist cop, who McDonagh resolutely presents as an actual human being from start to finish.
And it’s funny. There’s a very blurry line around the ‘comedy drama’ these days, now that cinema audiences and directors have grown up enough to recognise that people say and do funny things all the time, and that we don’t necessarily need to ham it up to speak with humour. For me, any drama without humour is on some level a failure, and it’s really just a question of emphasis that separates a film like the Coen Brothers’ True Grit from their Burn After Reading (I make no apology for offering two Coen movies for comparison, because few film-makers straddle this particular boundary in the way that they do). The humour in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in no way diminishes its dramatic power: in fact, it enhances it considerably. It’s funny enough to be real.