In a time of ruptured humanity and willful ignorance, we get the moralist we deserve. Martin McDonagh, the British Irish playwright turned filmmaker whose new feature Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri hits theaters Friday, writes characters that are foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, hopeless, nasty, bitter, and often vaguely racist and/or homophobic. But these people (and their creator) are wrestling with explicit issues of the faith, forgiveness, and humanity. And in his three films to date— In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and now Three Billboards—as well as his many stage plays before them, McDonagh is asking questions about both our personal and shared sense of morality—questions that feel more pressing with each passing day.
His 2008 feature debut, In Bruges, asks those questions most directly and uncomfortably. Its central character, Ray (Colin Farrell), is a hired killer who bungles his confession-booth hit on a priest, murdering a child in the crossfire. "He's dead because of me," he tells his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson). "And I'm tryin' to get my head around it, and I can't. I'll have always killed that little boy." It's worth noting that neither Ray nor Ken nor their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) seem bothered by the spiritual implications of murdering a priest—we're never given its express motive, but are left to assume that, collar or no, he had it coming. So the bar is low, but there's no arguing with its outcome; what Ray did cannot be excused, no matter how hard he tries—or needs it to be.
And yet: In the long, searching conversations the two share on a forced Belgian holiday while they await their next assignment (spoiler: it's Ken's, to kill Ray), the older man expresses his dedication to the idea of forgiveness and redemption. "You're not gonna bring that boy back," he tells Ray. "But you might save the next one." (Ray is skeptical: "What am I gonna be, a doctor? You need exams.")
But both men seem to struggle with whether their actions—on that day, and before—will send them to heaven or hell, or maybe purgatory, which Ray calls "the in-between-y one," where "you weren't really shit, but you weren't really that good." Asked if he believes in all that, Ken can't give a simple answer. "I consigned myself to the fact that I help kill people," he explains, and "most of them aren't good people." But the "most" is the tricky part, isn't it?
A similar conversation occurs midway through McDonagh's second feature, Seven Psychopaths—a less successful picture, mostly because it's more concerned with its winking meta-textual framework than the larger humanistic concerns of his other work. Farrell returns, this time as an unmotivated, alcoholic, badly blocked screenwriter, and the substitution isn't subtle; the character literally shares McDonagh's Christian name. He spends much of the film in the company of Hans (Christopher Walken), who explains simply, "God loves us, I know he does, he's just got a funny way of showing it sometimes."
Martin confesses, of faith and the afterlife, "I'm not sure what I believe… I put a lot of heaven and hell stuff in my stories." But throughout this narrative, both men are confronted with persistent reminders that one's actions always have consequences, whether it's Martin's bad breakup following a drunken outburst, or the murder of Hans's wife when a dognapping scheme goes awry.
That idea takes even greater root in In Bruges, its European setting (as opposed to Psychopaths, which is unsurprisingly centered in Hollywood) placing additional gravity on McDonagh's Irish-Catholic notions of reckoning—the knowledge that we have to pay for our sins, no matter how great or small.
So it's not just that Ray, as Harry puts it, "can't kill a kid and expect to get away with it," or that Harry must do the same (his announcement that "I'd have killed myself on the fuckin' spot" is rather quickly tested). It's that the ticket-taker at a tourist attraction is repaid multifold for being rude to Ken, or that the cops catch up with a fleeing Ray—and indirectly lead him back into danger—by nabbing him for a random act of seemingly unrelated restaurant violence much earlier in the film.
Yet for all of the religious implications of such payoffs, McDonagh is clearly working from a lapsed Catholic's perspective—specifically, the assumption that down here, in this life, we're on our own. That dismissal of the cloth is clear in the image of Ray gunning down the priest in In Bruges, and in the words of Three Billboards' Mildred (Frances McDonagh), who lets the town priest know that she has no interest in his moral guidance, because he and his lot are "culpable to boy-fuckin'."
That man of God is visiting on account of the billboards Mildred has put up on a back road, goading Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for failing to find, after seven months of investigation, the man who raped and murdered her teenage daughter. He appeals to her sense of decency, confiding that he is suffering from pancreatic cancer. It doesn't fly: "I know it. Most everybody in town knows it."
"And you still put up those billboards?" he presses, not unreasonably. "Well," she explains, "they wouldn't be as effective after you croak, right?"
Mildred is ostensibly our protagonist—but not always, which is part of the genius of McDonagh's writing. He acknowledges the ways in which we can lose sight of our decency when we're convinced we're in the right, and believe that overrides our willingness to score cheap points. (You can insert your own real-world political-divisiveness parallel, but here's mine.)
When they next face off, it's a boxing match of words, the pair smiling and prodding and pushing each other—until, out of nowhere, he sneezes blood on her, an unexpected appearance by his illness. "I didn't mean to," he insists, in a panic. "It was an accident." And she comforts him. "I know," she assures him. "I know, baby."
Three Billboards is full of moments like that, where the performances that avowed enemies put on for each other are ended by the snap decision to embrace a shared humanity. In that way, it feels like a tonic for these troubled times—a reminder that we can, in fact, find common ground, if we only choose to. After all, if we can't turn to the church at our moments of reckoning, and we can't lean on each other, well, what then?
Placed within the broader vision of McDonagh's worldview, it seems clear that this decision, to acknowledge some semblance of common cause, is one our very livelihood depends on. And perhaps that is the idea he's quietly attempting to convey throughout his work. "I don't want it to be one more movie about guys with guns in their hands," his Seven Psychopaths screenwriter—himself, basically—explains. "I want it to be about love. And peace."
That wish resonates in a scene late in Three Billboards, one that echoes throughout McDonagh's filmography. Mildred finds herself in a misty field, talking to a deer—perhaps a nod to the purity of pagan religion, in contrast to the rituals and starched collars of its organized offspring—wondering aloud how her daughter's murderer hasn't been found. She answers the question with another, rhetorical one: "Cause there ain't no God, and the whole world's empty, and it don't matter what we do to each other?" She pauses, ever so slightly, before answering herself. "I hope not."
The last three words are what elevate McDonagh's musings above those of a self-satisfied dorm-room atheist, or a sneering, gun-toting, screenwriting nihilist. "I hope not." It calls to mind a similar rejoinder at the end of Seven Psychopaths, which has somehow delivered us to the streets of Saigon, and the sight of the first anti-Vietnam War self-immolation. Yet despite the disparity in locations, McDonagh again finds a character in a place of deep contemplation, and when this one is told, "Desist, brother. You know this will not help us," he answers, "It might." And he lights the match.
Those two answers, and the two questions they ask—perhaps only in retrospect, but posed nonetheless—are inextricably linked. Without the promise (or threat) of eternal judgment, does anything we do matter? It might. But is it all for nothing? I hope not.
In asking those questions, and acknowledging that he doesn't know (that none of us really do), McDonagh is interrogating our shared sense of faith and morality as explicitly as any filmmaker this side of Scorsese in Silence and Last Temptation of Christ mode. And in Three Billboards' extraordinary closing lines, the filmmaker offers up what seems the only plausible solution for these conundrums: "I guess we can decide along the way."
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