Tuesday, January 2, 2018

There Will Be Blood: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Last week, by a strange quirk of the calendar, I spoke at my local library following a screening of The Graduate, and then was whisked off to watch a much newer movie, Martin McDonagh’s 2018 awards contender, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. By now—in the course of writing, publishing, and promoting my Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation—I must have seen The Graduate at least 150 times. There are various ways to measure a motion picture’s greatness, but the fact that I can watch a fifty-year- old movie 150 times and still get a kick out of it surely signals that it’s far better than average. After all this time I continue to find The Graduate both funny and endearing. It speaks particularly to Baby Boomers, who see it in the context of an especially turbulent period of American history, but I’ve recently chatted with young men and women who find in the situation of Benjamin Braddock an accurate encapsulation of any young person’s desperate attempt to make his or her voice heard. 

That being said, Benjamin’s angst in The Graduate is pretty mild stuff. Yes, he’s  suffering from a failure to communicate with his parents and their cronies. He doesn’t know what he wants out of life, though he’s trying at all costs to avoid going into plastics. He’s a smart, successful, affluent kid who doesn’t appreciate the gifts he’s been given, and can only grasp at the hazy fact that he wants his future to be “different.” And the other unhappy people in The Graduate, like Mrs. Robinson and her daughter Elaine, are equally lacking in the will to face their situations squarely and to arrive at solutions that really work.

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the problems are far bigger and far more resistant to solutions. Ebbing, Missouri is clearly more hard-scrabble than Beverly Hills, California, but it’s not economic hardship that darkens the lives of these characters. Instead, they suffer from a daunting array of challenges, facing not so much existential angst as genuine anguish. Among the people of Ebbing, Missouri, life is truly grim: there’s a fatal illness and a child’s brutal murder to contemplate, along with one character’s possible PTSD and another’s deeply ingrained propensity to violence. Ebbing is a place filled with more trauma than anyone knows what to do with, though some of the locals deal with tragedy via a surprising sweetness and others with a dark but very funny sense of humor.

Martin McDonagh started out as the playwright responsible for such bleak dramas as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, then segued into filmmaking with 2008’s In Bruges, which he both wrote and directed. His trademark is an intermingling of brutality with dark humor: In the course of In Bruges he uses the teaming of hitmen played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson to hilarious effect. A second feature film, Seven Psychopaths, was far less successful, I’m told. Now, though Irish to his core, McDonagh has set up shop in the American heartland, melding a profanely grieving mother (Frances McDormand) with an unusual good cop/ bad cop combo (Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell) to explore motifs of anger, retribution, and forgiveness in a most unlikely way. McDonagh is certainly not everyone’s cup of blood. Some critics have called this movie overrated, and feel its look at America is superficial and imprecise.  But one thing’s for sure. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Montana.is not a film easily forgotten. And that in itself is a form of greatness.

No comments:

Post a Comment