Oddly, the only two films that Ismay and I have been to see recently are both deeply tragic (or rather one is, and the other pretends to be), and yet are also comic (or rather one is genuinely if painfully comic, while the other – I am forced to admit – has a few comic moments). In one, the gripping but unsettling Bulgarian film Glory, the tragedy and comedy are integrally entwined. The other film is Three Billboards. Here is what we think of them:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Dir/Writer: Martin McDonagh. Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
115 mins. USA 2017
I came out of this film with very mixed feelings: was it a comedy? Was it a tragedy? Was it a slice of deep south realism? A redemption drama?
Ismay had a much clearer view than I did, and after our usual brief debrief in the Watershed foyer, I thought she was absolutely right.
Yes it was a comedy if you find swearing inherently funny and if you think it’s hilarious to hear one of the characters referred to as ‘the midget’ five or six or ten times in every scene in which he appears.
Yes it was a tragedy if you believed for one second that the film was actually about a mother’s grief and rage for the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. Believe us, it was not.
The rape and murder of a girl is the excuse, the McGuffin, or as Ismay said, the decoration, that lies at the hollow heart of this meretricious, trivialising film. In the one flashback, the girl, being told she can’t borrow her mother’s car and will have to walk, rushes out of the house saying, I hope I get raped. Her mother shouts after her, I hope you get raped. Guess what? She gets raped. And murdered.
Yes it was a slice of realism if you believe that black people exist only as a foil for the dramas in the lives of white people (as a number of critics have already pointed out).
Redemption drama? The bigot reborn as a sensitive new man through cleansing fire? Give us a break.
What I particularly disliked was the mix of sentimentality (the ‘oh, I’m dying of cancer …’ scenario amongst others) and violence, that I seem to remember was the reason I so disliked this director’s In Bruges (although I admit it was a long time ago I saw that).
Utterly and completely weirdly the film was sort of carried by Frances McDormand as a kick-ass older woman, and also by good performances although I hate to say it from Woody Harrelson as dying-of-cancer-and-terribly-wise Police Chief Willoughby, and from Sam Rockwell as over-the-top racist violent bigot full-of-hate-because-his daddy-died policeman. Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the mother of the dead girl, in particular gives weight to a shallow, tasteless film, and but even she can’t quite redeem it.
Glory (Slava) is a very different kettle of fish.
Dir/ Writers: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, with Decho Taralezhkov as co-writer
Cast: Stefan Denolyubov, Margita Gosheva
When shy, solitary, stammering railway linesman Tzanko Petrov finds oodles of banknotes scattered across the railway line he calls the authorities rather than scooping it into his own pockets, and as a result is made into a national hero of honesty by the Transport Ministry’s cynical head of PR, shiny-haired, high-heeled Julia Staykova. We are in a deeply corrupt country, and we know from the start, in a brilliant shot of a callous young policeman waiting with the shabby linesman (brilliantly portrayed by Stefan Denolyubov) for the money to be picked up, that Petrov’s honest action can only lead to tragedy. But we can have no idea how. Even before Petrov’s wristwatch, a treasured gift from his father, is taken off him so that the Minister of Transport can award him another one in the glare of the TV lights, a cheapo one that doesn’t even keep time, we are caught up in a gripping narrative of action and consequence. Margita Gosheva is brilliantly funny as the PR woman, wheeling and dealing on her mobile even while she and her husband are in the fertility clinic undergoing IVF.
In a world as corrupt as this, you are obliged to be shallow, self-serving, shiny and heartless in order to survive. Unlike Three Billboards, this film skewers the society that makes people behave in terrible ways. It is a deeply serious and painful film, yet also in places very funny.