The Martian is actually Martin McDonagh, a playwright from the U.K. “Three Billboards” is his third movie (“In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths” precede this one), and the second set in the United States. He’s a dramatist and a linguist who can be glorious about the ordinariness and misery of duty and work. His plays — like “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” or “The Cripple of Inishmaan” — tether behavior to state of mind. You believe what people do because they appear to be making the choices — ugly ones — as opposed to an author you can picture yanking the strings.
But his movies are all strings. Often they feel as if other filmmakers are doing the pulling. “In Bruges” featured two hit men on a chatty stroll in Belgium, and certain people’s passion for it is fit for Valentine’s Day. But it was Tupperware Tarantino to me.
Credit Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight Pictures
To “Three Billboards” admirers and to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the outfit that hands out the Golden Globes, something about the movie rings true or feels timely. That presumption of truth is driving some of the annoyance over this movie. My favorite bad thing about “Three Billboards” is its ambition to play around with America’s ideological and geographical toys.
One of the toys is the word “nigger.” Another is the concept of political correctness. There’s a scene between Mildred and a hotheaded dimwit cop — the racist — named Jason (Sam Rockwell), in which she baits his racism by calling him a “nigger torturer.” He hits the roof. “Person-of-color-torturing” is what Jason says you must call it now, with exasperated lament. They volley the word and poke fun at its impropriety. You can tell that Mr. McDonagh relished the application of absurdism to the political correction (he knows “person-of-color-torturing” really is linguistic torture, maybe even for a person of color). But he also seems to like the loaded nonsense in the sound of the word “nigger.” What you hear in a scene like this is a kind of careless virtuosity. It’s a fun scene that’s sunk by how much fun it’s having with things you’re not supposed to have fun with. The whole movie is like that — it’s like Mildred — rude for sport and proud of it.
There’s certainly a place for a white artist to poke, laughingly, at our racial and class messes. (Mel Brooks, for instance, excelled at it.) But Mr. McDonagh doesn’t want to do more than poke. The Danish director Lars von Trier tried a more explicit damnation of the United States with “Dogville” (2003) and “Manderlay” (2005). But I liked the nihilism in Mr. von Trier’s respective approximations of racism and slavery, even if he followed a European habit, especially in documentaries, of diagnosing America’s ills in the least surprising and most patronizing way.
For a movie that asks you to behold so much violence — defenestration and talk of rape, a bludgeoning, a suicide, charred skin, a dental drill that treats a thumb like drywall — “Three Billboards” feels weirdly benign. Its black comedy doesn’t leave a bruise. The violence curdles into the cartoonish. The movie could be about grace and vengeance, but they’re presented as hoary lessons and hokey contrivances — happening upon a deer, sharing your orange juice with the madman who tried to murder you, juxtaposing the reading of an inspirational letter with an inferno. There’s no reckoning with anything, no introspection, just escalating mayhem. The mix of the silly and the serious puts the movie in Coen brothers territory. But they can adjust the settings for their cynicism. Even at their worst, they’ve got their finesse. Mr. McDonagh just keeps bashing away.
Credit Tyler Golden/Netflix
This really is an action movie whose action is played for laughs. Mildred beats up teenagers and tells off priests. Her precision with a Molotov cocktail should land her in the Super Bowl. Ms. McDormand certainly makes the most of the tirade machine Mr. McDonagh has built for her. (Not since “Erin Brockovich” has anybody gotten to tell off this many people with this much gusto.) You feel for Mildred, but you fear her more. When she approaches a table in a restaurant carrying a wine bottle, the audience practically begs her not to use it. By this point, Mildred is way past being a mad mommy. She’s Charles Bronson.
But she’s not the only bereft mother fueled by vengeance. The foreign language Golden Globe went, in a surprise, to Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade,” which has Diane Kruger as a white German who must endure the legal trial of the neo-Nazi terrorists who killed her Turkish-German husband and their young son. It’s doesn’t rank up there with “Head-On” (2004) and “The Edge of Heaven” (2007), Mr. Akin’s masterwork melodramas. It’s too well oiled a machine, too morally simple to be completely satisfying. But it’s more clear-eyed and serious than “Three Billboards” about what it means to inflict pain. Maybe there’s a way to laugh through rage, but Mr. Akin doesn’t know what way that would be. Neither, I would argue, does Mr. McDonagh.
“Three Billboards” is a cupcake rolled in glass. It all just feels off. The redemption of the racist cop doesn’t bother me — Sam Rockwell studiously plays him as a dangerous dope. But the way two other black characters (Amanda Warren and Darrell Britt-Gibson) and a smitten dwarf (Peter Dinklage) bop around Mildred is almost Muppet-like. (Mr. Dinklage’s stature is meant to be a source of unapologetic amusement. More stuff you’re not supposed to have fun with!)
Eventually, the film introduces a temporary black police chief (Clarke Peters) who seems meant to draw out — Sidney Poitier-style — some of the bigotry coursing through town, or at least through the precinct. But he’s as much a prop as one of the billboards.
Frances McDormand’s leading turn in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is being praised as one of the finest of her career. But that’s no small claim, considering the variety and power of her filmography thus far.
I thought a lot about this movie watching “American Vandal,” an eight-part, sitcom-length show created by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, on Netflix. It parodies the true-crime boomlet epitomized by “The Jinx” on HBO, “Making a Murderer” on Netflix and podcasts like “Serial.” And, like “Three Billboards,” the series revolves around jerks. Someone spray-painted 27 penises on 27 cars in the staff parking lot of a high school in Oceanside, Calif. And two student reporters investigate. The prime suspect — a stoner-skate punk senior named Dylan Maxwell — has been expelled. The two reporters poke holes in the case against him and explore a gamut of alternative culprits.
Like Mr. McDonagh’s movie, “American Vandal” takes a circuitous route to earnestly asked philosophical questions about human nature. The show has a breezy confidence that never tips all the way into mockery. But it’s a lot less impressed with itself. It undermines the piety and ethical lapses in nonfiction mystery shows, while sharing with “Three Billboards” a belief in semaphores and that people aren’t any one thing. Also — and this feels important — it feels like the people who made this show understand their setting and the people who live there. I’ve never been to Oceanside, but I believe this show’s rendition of it.
Even in a setting as generic as an American high school, the show has a sense of place. And it’s a white show whose nonwhite characters don’t feel like objects. I’m not sure what Ebbing is. You can feel that uncertainty in the movie’s cop-out of a finale, in its bewildering loftiness (“Oscar Wilde” as a character’s last words) and in the coveralls Mildred spends most of the movie wearing. Her job is at a rustic gift shop, but the coveralls point to the harder blue-collar work we’ve seen Ms. McDormand do in movies like “North Country.” Here, these clothes signify emotional work, yet they feel like a put-on, too. Three billboards, sure — but outside a coffee shop in Portland, Ore.
The movie isn’t an explicit work of politics, but it reaches something political in certain people in the same way it touches something emotional in others. And yet in arguing about this movie what I don’t want, but where I’m afraid we are — with lots of film this time every year — is in another fight over a movie’s politics that manages to leave the movie itself behind.
Whose fault is that? We’ve been seduced and bullied into thinking of the awards season as a process of politics. The people who make the movies also run or finance “campaigns.” There is opposition research, and, in the form of other award shows, primaries, so to speak. And it all culminates with the election night we call the Academy Awards broadcast. So it’s only natural that we tend to think of best picture (and a few of the major, ancillary categories) as a kind of vote in which, while average people have no say, we’re all invested in the symbolism and catharsis of the outcome.
“Three Billboards,” which is not based on a true story but does have some reality flavoring, must appear worthy of elected office, in some way. This was at first the illusion presented by the people running the campaigns, and in turn over the years, has become the custom for lots of us.
The movie can’t be just the misfire that it is. The enthusiasm for it has to represent the injustice the movie believes it’s aware of — against young murdered women, their suffering dysfunctional families and black torture victims we never see — but fails to sufficiently poeticize or dramatize what Mr. McDonagh is up to here: a search for grace that carries a whiff of American vandalism. Of course, few movies can predict their moment, but “Three Billboards” might be inadequately built for this one.