A new Rockwell classic
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” — W. Somerset Maugham
The above quote could also pertain to writing a screenplay. Irish/British writer Martin McDonagh penned a script that became the movie, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” McDonagh produced and directed this roiling rollercoaster of a black comedy. In addition to being a respected playwright he has a couple of other films under his belt which are hilarious and noteworthy: “In Bruges,” and “Seven Psychopaths.” This guy can tell a story — albeit a bloody, wacky, brooding, shocking and transcendent tale — and his writing completely subjugates the reader or viewer. We can’t look away from the path his fractured protagonists find themselves stumbling down; we want to cheer for these people. We want to love them. We will love them simply on the basis of their collective humanity.
In the film “Three Billboards,” we find a cast of flawed people caught in external conflicts which seem overwhelming, heavy, oppressive and overly existential. Frances McDormand plays a mother — who is mourning the murder of her daughter — and has a problem with the ineptitude of the local police department. She rents three billboards — with an austere yet direct message — to get the attention of said police, and this drives the initial incident of the plot. Woody Harrelson plays the local Chief of Police, and his comedic foil is a cop played by Sam Rockwell. The casting of these three seasoned professionals, along with John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage, allowed McDonough to reveal a range of credible emotional pull — for all of the characters — amidst a careworn and motley backdrop. The film is rife with nuanced tongue-in-cheek asides, broken windows and limbs, fires, gunshots, splayed, gashed flesh — and a turtle. And, we simply stare with our mouths agape, guffawing and chortling along as if it’s the funniest stuff we’ve ever seen. If there are any rules for writing a story, then McDonagh tossed them into the abyss with happy abandon; his rules worked just fine in this narrative.
Redemption is the central theme in this film. In any story the audience must know that the protagonist wants something — the three main characters want redemption. No matter how absurdly a narrative develops, once the audience figures out the protagonist has this universal and very human need to be redeemed, they will hop aboard for the ride, and travel through the ascending action (regardless of how wacky it is), then onward to the climactic moment, and finally reach the outcome of the story. The job of the actor in a story of this intensity is not to overplay, or oversell their character.
The writing in this story deals with incongruity. McDonagh tells us of a woman whose daughter was murdered, and at the same time he is writing the story in a comic context. Moreover, we find ourselves laughing amidst the literal and figurative carnage. Therein lies said incongruity; horror and humor, but the combination of great acting and superior writing allow McDonagh to pull this off quite handily. Frances McDormand can communicate her pain with the twitch of her lip, a snarky line — or brooding silence. She ghosts her pain and weariness; however, her fierceness and desire for justice is revealed through her eye drama. Her power is contained and unbridled at the same time — more incongruity. Harrelson’s character is a world-weary cop and family man dealing with the hand he is dealt — in this life — and does his best to do the right thing under dire circumstances. His sagacity and heart show us the good stuff of the human condition. Sam Rockwell’s character is the polar opposite of Harrelson’s Chief, but the conflicted relationship between these two men drives the core of the narrative. Their humanness draws us into their respective conflicts, and begs the question of what would we do under similar circumstances. This is something that McDonagh explores in other works like, “In Bruges.”
My introduction to Martin McDonagh’s work was seeing a play in 2010 called “A Behanding in Spokane.” Chris Walken told me about the play — he was in it — and my wife and I went to see the show. This was McDonagh’s first play that was set in America, and the writing grabbed me right from the jump. Furthermore, I got to see Sam Rockwell perform and became an instant fan. He is one of those character actors who pops up in films, and dominates the moment because of his credibility for the character he plays. Rockwell got some well-deserved recognition for his work in this new film. He’s been nominated for an Oscar (he took home the BAFTA for this role on Feb. 18), and so have his castmates Woody Harrelson and McDormand, and the film is up for Best Picture. McDonagh got a screenwriting nod, too.
Somerset Maugham has a point regarding writing fiction. If everyone knew the “rules,” then writing stories would be easy — writing is never, easy. Good writing is a result of observation, and hard work; writing is re-writing. I feel the same way about films. There are no rules, just unlimited possibilities and choices for actors and directors to make. When I hit this film again, I’ll be tuning in to the subtext and nuance of the actors and their line delivery. Moreover, I will track down a copy of the screenplay to read this summer on my boat.
I remember seeing Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men” right after I read the book. As I sat in the theater during the opening scenes, I heard audible groans from the audience, and I thought, bingo, this thing is going big — the Coen brothers served the writing right out of the gate. (McDormand has been married to Joel Coen for almost 35 years.) I’ll bet my nickels that “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” will win some Oscars. I have that feeling, and sometimes I’m right.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” will be showing at the Common Ground Coffeehouse on Friday, March 2, with supper starting at 6:30 p.m. and the film at 7:15 p.m. at Harbor Church. The Oscars will be broadcast on the ABC television network on Sunday, March 4 at 8 p.m.