How McDonagh uses violence as a window into the brokenness of his characters.
Prepare your virgin ears. A new Red Band trailer has just dropped for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, the long awaited new film from Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). The darkly comic, foulmouthed filmmaker hasn’t made a movie since 2012’s Seven Psychopaths (citing a desire to travel, as well as a production of one of his plays on Broadway), but it’s clear that his return to the big screen will be everything we’ve been waiting for. Three Billboards stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a hard-charging, crotch-kicking Missouri woman who, when police fail to turn up a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, pastes three billboards with messages indicting the beloved local chief (Woody Harrelson) for his inaction. McDonagh regular Sam Rockwell co-stars as Officer Dixon, the chief’s deputy, leading an impressive ensemble cast that includes Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawks, and Abbie Cornish.
The new film represents a change of pace for McDonagh, whose previous two features have both been (somewhat ambivalently) about men with guns. In Bruges, his stellar debut, starred Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two Irish hitmen hiding out in the Belgian city after a job gone wrong. Seven Psychopaths, in a meta turn, featured Farrell as a Hollywood screenwriter named Marty, who laments the role of violence in his own films. Seven Psychopaths builds to a bloody climax, but after making it McDonagh resolved to change his relationship to violence onscreen. “With the next one [Three Billboards] there’s violent aspects beneath the surface of it, but there’s no onscreen violence and no guns at all,” he told the BFI in 2012, “And it’s a very strong female lead character, so it’s the opposite of [Psychopaths] in a way. And it’s a bit more serious.”
Leave it to McDonagh to see no violence in a film that (in the trailer alone) features a man on fire from a molotov cocktail, a woman being choked, another being punched, and a dentist falling victim to his own drill. But McDonagh has always drawn a distinction in his films between slapstick violence (such as Farrell karate-chopping a dwarf in In Bruges) and real violence, which he treats as “painful, truthful, and ugly, and not gratuitous.” This distinction is at the heart of Three Billboards: the real violence at the film’s center, the murder of Angela Hayes, underpins the humor of the film with profound grief.
McDonagh has always used violence not as a mere plot device but as a way into the brokenness of his characters, mining what he calls “the childish, stupid, sentimental nature of violent men.” Though he finds black humor in the callousness and contradictory morality of murderers, he distinguishes himself from filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (to whom he’s often compared) in his resolve not to take any death lightly. “If you’re shooting 100 bullets like they do in most movies, they’ve all got to go somewhere,” he told Birth.Movies.Death. in 2012, “…and what happens if they hit an innocent?” Three Billboards takes place in the aftermath of just such a killing, fittingly featuring McDonagh’s first female lead contending with the childish, stupid men with guns around her.
Of course, McDonagh does not condemn these men either; the “villains” in his films are often sympathetic and always as broken as the heroes. Murder is always murder, but good and evil in McDonagh’s films are harder to pin down. Just as In Bruges features a conflict among murderers in the wake of a tragedy, so Three Billboards pits the drama in similar circumstances among innocents. No one comes away entirely clean, and all are resoundingly human. If the trailer and McDonagh’s comments are any indication, this will likely be the filmmaker’s tenderest to date (“fuckheads” and “bitches” aside).
No release date has yet been set, but the film is expected to come out later this year. To hold yourselves over during the wait, provided you’ve already seen In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths (do it if you haven’t), check out McDonagh’s Oscar-winning short film, Six Shooter. Like Three Billboards, Six Shooter finds black comedy in the aftermath of grief. The film stars Brendan Gleeson as Donnelly (a quiet foil to McDormand’s Mildred), a widower who encounters an irreverent young man on a train ride home. And yes, as the title suggests, it features men with guns. But already in his first cinematic effort, once can see the seeds of McDonagh’s ambivalence toward violence and sensitivity to its aftermath.
You could also just watch the Three Billboards trailer a dozen more times.