From Martin McDonagh’s first foray into movies – the short film Six Shooter (available on YouTube) – the playwright-turned-movie director has shown an affinity for numbers and logic. OK, his first feature was called In Bruges, but it features a fabled numeral – 127 uses of the f-word in some form or another over its 107 minutes of running time, an average of 1.18 per 60 seconds.
He named his second full-length film Seven Psychopaths, and most recently, of course, Oscar candidate Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has joined the fold. In a way, McDonagh’s use of digits serves to reinforce his penchant for precision. His ceiling in film seems to be infinite. He hasn’t simply made the same movie over and over, instead escalating his growth exponentially over the small sample size.
First there was In Bruges in 2008. The film world is chock full of movies about hit men, guys like Colin Farrell’s Ray whose one mistake derailed a “promising” career. And ones like Brendan Gleeson’s Ken who will literally go to the mat for his mate. But from the get go, McDonagh shows he’ll be delivering a different type of tale, and he’s not going to be politically correct in any sense of the word while he does it. No faction is off limits – one minute Ray castigates the overweight and another a dwarf racist (Jordan Prentice) rails from his soapbox.
Removing the shackles of diplomacy completely liberates McDonagh’s film in terms of both dialogue and action. That takes the shackles off the audience as well, you just don’t know how far he’s going to take his sentiment in any direction and so it’s less easy to figure out where the whole thing is headed.
McDonagh employs the right people to get the job done. In In Bruges, the director served three dynamic main characters. They’re fully fleshed out, even if the third one (Ralph Fiennes’ Harry) is only heard over the phone for about half of the film. We’re fully engaged with Ray and Ken by the time we actually see foul-mouthed Harry. But within the course of one well-written McDonagh scene, we get the hang of him. Frustrated when he finds out things aren’t going his way in Bruges, Harry takes it out on his phone … and his significant other.
“It’s an inanimate object,” she tells him.
“You’re an inanimate fucking object,” he barks back, and then hastens to apologise a short time later just so we know he’s not some one-dimensional warlord. That invariably helps set up the pivotal denouement.
McDonagh’s history in the theatre is evident in his side dialogue, bit character Yuri (Eric Godon) obsesses on the word “alcove” and whether or not it aptly describes a particular place. It’s priceless to have Harry deride the use of an uzi as too ghetto, moviegoers are all too used to seeing that weapon mow down a myriad of people in a short span of time.
With just those touches, McDonagh’s done more than enough to entertain us. Those who like to read more into their entertainment might see bigger questions, though. “Maybe that’s what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in fucking Bruges,” Ray wonders. Is Bruges purgatory? Are Ray and Ken just waiting to see which way they’re going? And is that what the writer/director is trying to show us?
That may be the fates for those in fucking Bruges, but McDonagh’s star has only started to rise. Not content to sit back and coast on the cult status of his first film, four years later, he hands over Seven Psychopaths. This one recalls everything from Sam Peckinpah films to Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation while laying the ground work for the likes of last year’s crowd-pleasing Baby Driver.
McDonagh is simply brilliant at pointing out the imbalance of recurring movie themes while still using them to best advantage. He rails against movie violence even as it remains an essential component of his films. His characters can heckle dream sequences as being for “fags” – later back peddling on the use of that word in favour of the slightly less off-putting “homos” – then do an about-face on the tenet he himself set up because “everyone has a dream.”
The Seven Psychopaths lead — played by Farrell again and named Marty to raise inevitable questions over what’s fact and what’s fiction as well as McDonagh’s reaction to becoming a cult favourite — explains movie shootouts get tiresome after a while and violence is not what he wants to be writing anymore. Of course, that won’t keep him from utilising it for the climax. So when Sam Rockwell (Billy) outlines a prospective ending for Marty’s screenplay with a big bloody shootout at the end, it makes one wonder whether that was McDonagh’s discarded idea for the ending or just him roughhousing with other films in the genre.
As with In Bruges, he plays to his strong suit with deft nuance. While telling a story, Christopher Walken’s Hans points out a gun is checked to see if it’s loaded. “I don’t know why he checks it’s loaded, he loaded it,” Hans says, and movie audiences everywhere recognise that as something we’ve seen a hundred times for no good reason. When Marty says he doesn’t believe in guns, another character retorts “they aren’t fucking leprechauns.” Even the lessons of Gandhi get knocked down a peg when Rockwell shows the famed “eye for an eye” sentiment doesn’t ring true if the last man standing has one eye and no blind man can find him to extract final retribution.
Reportedly, McDonagh wasn’t as tied to every syllable in the script for his second film, giving Rockwell some room to manoeuvre and improvise as the off-the-rails Billy. Both Rockwell and Woody Harrelson prove to be impressive additions to the director’s stable of actors. As Charlie, the latter shows great relish as a man blinded by concern for his dog on one hand and capable of much brutality on the other. He can chastise Marty for putting on a sad face about his buddies’ deaths with almost surgical McDonagh precision. “I’ve had more friends killed than you have had killed. Don’t give me that moany fucking face,” Charlie asserts.
That kind of style gives the writer latitude in creating fresh takes on seminal moments in history. In Seven Psychopaths, the first Vietnamese man to protest war whispers uses self-immolation as a means of avoiding violence he might have caused on a greater scale. And the famed Zodiac killer was never uncovered not because he just stopped killing or died peacefully but because two other serial killers rubbed him out.
McDonagh doesn’t back down from commenting on film violence against women either. Marty’s berated by Hans for offing every woman who comes on the scene soon after she enters his film. “It’s a hard world for women,” Marty tries to explain. Walker – and McDonagh, in turn – responds most of the women he knows can string together a proper sentence. And just like that, the cornerstone in set in place for Frances McDormand’s leading role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.