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Funny Like JudgesFunny Like Judges

Funny Like Judges

Martin McDonagh’s latest film brilliantly blends the Bible and pitch black comedy, writes Convivium reviewer Erik DeLange.

Erik deLange
4 minute read

There is a brutal and haunting scene in the middle of Martin McDonagh’s latest film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in which the young racist cop named Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell with Oscar-worthy depth and simplicity) comes unhinged by grief and commits a brutal physical assault on a billboard owner all while Monsters of Folk’s song “His Master’s Voice” plays hauntingly in the background.

The song comes from Monsters’ 2009 self-titled album which came out, judging by the look of the cell phones and cereal boxes, around the same time as this Missouri-based film was set. As Dixon is committing this horrible deed, the lyrics “Their job tonight, re-write the Bible / For a whole new generation of non-believers” rings out, effectively summarizing what McDonagh has done in this simple yet profound depiction of brokenness, love, and even (maybe) redemption.

McDonagh, the Irish (Catholic?) filmmaker best known for his 2008 work In Bruges, as well as Seven Psychopaths and several notable plays, has given the viewer another pitch-black comedy with some real earnest moments and, as usual, pervasive religious themes.

In addition to Dixon, who at least for the first act or two could be considered the antagonist, there is the another broken and disturbed vigilante named Mildred—played with precision and Oscar-likely honesty by Francis McDormand. At the start of the film, Mildred shamelessly rents the three titular billboards to call attention to the rape and murder of her teenaged daughter and call out the police department for not doing a better job.

As we journey with Mildred, the Biblical theme of the destructive power of sin that lies in every human being is on full display here. But in Middle America in 2009 the issues are not so much idolatry, violence, and war, as they are pervasive sexism, racism, and homophobia. McDonagh’s stylized aesthetic and Biblical themes give the film a timeless feel, but the particular way he deals with these issues could not be more timely or—in McDonagh’s signature style—funnier.

I’m reminded of the scene where Mildred asks Dixon point-blank, “How’s it going in the n*gger-torturing business, Dixon?” to which he replies, “It’s ‘Persons of color’-torturing business, these days, if you want to know.” The irony is beautiful, funny, sad, and dark.

I would encourage those who find the balancing act of finding humour in very dark places deeply unsettling to look for the comedy in a book like Jonah, or perhaps even better for our purposes here, the desperate and wicked times of the book of Judges. At one point in Judges, the wicked and obese king Eglon gets stabbed by the left-handed judge Ehud. The NIV captures it this way “Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it.” Ehud then sneaks out the porch and locks the doors. The Bible continues,

After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said ‘He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the palace.’ They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead.” (Judges 3, NIV)

Corruption, obesity, immorality, murder. It’s not funny, but there is humour. There is humour because there are humans. If the book of Judges can find a comedy of errors amidst a brutal murder, surely there is room for the truth of McDonagh’s humour to illuminate the corruption of middle America.

The billboards went up on the eve of Easter Sunday. In Bruges took place over Christmas. Nothing in a good screenplay is accidental. We should expect nothing less from Irish (Catholic?) filmmaker Martin McDonagh. The only reason I put his Catholicism in question is that my personal theory of the reason Martin and his brother John Michael McDonagh (also a prolific filmmaker in his own right) don’t work together is that Martin is a lapsed Catholic and John Michael is still devout. Their films share the same anxieties, themes, pervasive curse words, and even actors, but when it comes to overarching theses, John Michael’s darkness is often more sincerely redemptive, even overtly Christological, whereas with Martin there is often only the faintest hope of forgiveness, and always a twinkle in his eye.

 “Anger begets more anger,” the thesis of this film, is comically given to Mildred’s ex-husband’s 19-year- old girlfriend.

“I read it on a bookmark” she states proudly.

Given the context, the viewer is unsure whether to applaud this insight or write it off completely as the trite wisdom of the inexperienced. This, of course, is what McDonagh is going for. Three Billboards is indeed the Bible rewritten. And it’s rewritten for the post-ironic generation of whom you can never tell if they are sending something up or lovingly embracing it. Maybe it’s both.

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