Son of An­ar­chy

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - BY SAM DEAN @Sa­mau­gust­dean

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Lon­doner named Martin Mcdon­agh sat down and wrote seven plays in just a year. Six were set in the stark ter­rain of Con­nemara and its nearby is­lands, the ru­ral area of west­ern Ire­land where his par­ents were born. The sev­enth play takes place in a fu­ture dic­ta­tor­ship, where se­cret po­lice in­ter­ro­gate a play­wright after a mad­man be­gins com­mit­ting the grue­some acts of child tor­ture de­scribed in his work.

That last one, The Pil­low­man, is named for Mcdon­agh’s idea of a fairy-tale char­ac­ter—a man made of pil­lows who mer­ci­fully con­vinces the tor­tured chil­dren to take their own lives. The Ir­ish plays are pop­u­lated with sim­i­larly cheery sorts, among them a sadis­tic sol­dier who un­leashes mur­der­ous hell after he finds his beloved cat dead

(The Lieu­tenant of Inish­more); a boy with creep­ing tu­ber­cu­lo­sis who vainly dreams of movie star­dom—when he’s not be­ing beaten half to death by the lo­cals (The

Crip­ple of Inish­maan); and a lonely woman who kills her spite­ful, be­lit­tling mother with a fire poker (The Beauty Queen of Leenane).

Most of th­ese plays are, im­prob­a­bly, come­dies. Mcdon­agh, you see, has a rare ta­lent for wring­ing belly laughs from un­re­lent­ing mis­ery.

Three years after he wrote them, four were si­mul­ta­ne­ously run­ning on Lon­don stages—a feat sup­pos­edly matched only by Shake­speare—and many would even­tu­ally move to Broad­way, win­ning a bushel of awards along the way.

In the late ’90s, in a lull be­tween trans-at­lantic pro­duc­tions and drunk­enly swear­ing at Sean Con­nery at an awards cer­e­mony (well doc­u­mented in the Bri­tish tabloids), Mcdon­agh found him­self on a school bus with a crew of ac­tivists driv­ing from the Amer­i­can South to Nicaragua, pick­ing up food and medicine from Chris­tian churches along the way. “It was very left-wing,” says Mcdon­agh, who de­scribes his par­tic­i­pa­tion as “just go­ing along to carry stuff.”

Out­side of a town in Mis­souri, whose name Mcdon­agh can’t re­mem­ber, the bus drove by a set of bill­boards that ac­cused lo­cal po­lice of fail­ing to cap­ture a killer. “The bill­boards stayed in my mind for­ever, re­ally,” says Mcdon­agh. “Who would feel that much pain and anger to take such a step?”

His new film, Three Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing,

Mis­souri, serves as an an­swer. Frances Mc­dor­mand stars as Mil­dred, the work­ing mother of a teenage daugh­ter who was bru­tally raped, mur­dered and set on fire. She ac­cuses the po­lice chief (played by Woody Har­rel­son) and his cops of be­ing derelict in their du­ties. “Once I de­cided that it was a woman, and a mother,” says Mcdon­agh, “the char­ac­ter of Mil­dred just popped out.”

This isn’t Mcdon­agh’s first film. In 2008 and 2012, he wrote and di­rected the cult ca­per come­dies In Bruges and Seven Psy­chopaths. The lat­ter stars, among oth­ers, Sam Rock­well, who also ap­pears in Three Bill­boards. He’s an old Mcdon­agh hand at this point; in 2010, he starred along­side Christo­pher Walken in the play­wright’s A Be­hand­ing in Spokane on Broad­way. In this lat­est col­lab­o­ra­tion, Rock­well plays a racist cop, lo­cally fa­mous for tor­tur­ing a black prisoner.

Mcdon­agh wrote the char­ac­ter for Rock­well, and Mil­dred for Mc­dor­mand. “I knew it had to be Frances,” says Mcdon­agh. “I could never think of any­one else who’d be as good, and luck­ily, it never came to that.” The ac­tress, in her work with film­mak­ers Ethan and Joel Coen (Mc­dor­mand is mar­ried to Joel), has proved a deft hand at gal­lows hu­mor. Mil­dred’s de­ci­sion to buy the tit­u­lar bill­boards sets off a Rube Goldberg ma­chine of vi­o­lence, re­tal­i­a­tion and re­gret—with Mcdon­agh’s usual help­ings of black com­edy.

Three Bill­boards is a re­turn to the fe­male-cen­tered com­plex­ity of some of those early Ir­ish plays, and the film is the stronger for it. That Mil­dred has a son, an ex-hus­band, a job and a po­ten­tial love in­ter­est—in other words, a real life—height­ens the ten­sion and deep­ens the emo­tion. “As a young man, I used to write good parts for women, and I wanted to get back to that,” says Mcdon­agh. “Not just in a sim­ple kind of fem­i­nist way, although that was part of it. Writ­ing some­one as strong as Mil­dred takes the story to so many sur­pris­ing places.”

The town of Eb­bing, Mis­souri, is fic­tional. “It had

to be set in one of the South­ern states, but, to be hon­est, I liked the three syl­la­bles of ‘Mis­souri’ and the flow of the line,” says Mcdon­agh, who has never been overly con­cerned with ques­tions of au­then­tic­ity. Nev­er­the­less, he gen­er­ally nails lo­cal ver­nac­u­lar and af­fect. His most re­cent play, Hang­men, is about Eng­land’s last ex­e­cu­tion­ers in the north­ern English town of Old­ham. The di­rec­tor of the play’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed West End run hap­pened grow up in Old­ham, and he prais Mcdon­agh for the script’s verisim itude—ac­com­plished without o visit to a town just a few hours fro the writer’s home in Lon­don.

With Three Bill­boards, Mc­dona stum­bled into some luck. “I did know what the Mis­souri ac­cent w when I be­gan writ­ing,” he says, “a once I checked around, I found the are four or six Mis­souri ac­cents. Y can get away with mur­der, lit­er­all

Rock­well, on the other hand, did due dili­gence, cap­tur­ing lo­cal lingo rid­ing along with cops in Spring­fie For all that work, he can re­memb only one word in the script that g Mis­souri-ized: “In­stead of sayi

county jail, we said clank.”

One char­ac­ter man­ages to wo “be­twixt” into a sen­tence—rando enough to seem like a lo­cal pre lec­tion. But Mcdon­agh says it w cribbed from a fa­vorite film, the cl sic 1955 noir thriller The Night of t

Hunter, star­ring Robert Mitchum. can’t tell you whether or not anyo

He has a rare ta­lent for wring­ing belly laughs from un­re­lent­ing mis­ery.

has ever said that in Mis­souri.”

The film’s un­flinch­ing ref­er­ences to in­sti­tu­tional racism and po­lice bru­tal­ity, how­ever, ring painfully true to Amer­i­can view­ers. “I hope we paint as even­handed a pic­ture as is pos­si­ble,” says Mcdon­agh, “but it would have been very wishy-washy of me to back down from how I see cer­tain as­pects of po­lice re­la­tions in the U.S.”

Mcdon­agh fin­ished the script eight years ago, be­fore Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, be­came syn­ony­mous with po­lice racism. “I did won­der whether the film should still be set in the state, since it might look like a spe­cific ref­er­ence,” he says. “But I thought, You know, fuck it. At this point, there aren’t many places you can set it and avoid that.”

The Amer­i­can char­ac­ters in

Seven Psy­chopaths also ex­pressed a pointed dis­like of the po­lice. Does he see Amer­i­can cops as worse than those in his coun­try? “I think it’s a trans-at­lantic dis­like for cops,” says Mcdon­agh with a laugh. “Hitch­cock al­ways had a pro­found ha­tred for the po­lice, fun­nily enough.”

Rock­well made friends with the cops he rode along with, and he gave them a chance to read the script. “They re­ally liked it,” he says. “They know racism ex­ists, but the cops I met were re­ally, re­ally good guys.”

For Mcdon­agh, the film is, first and fore­most, about Mil­dred. “My al­le­giances were al­ways with her,” he says. “I guess a lot of my work is about the out­sider—an­ar­chism might be too strong a word for some of th­ese peo­ple, but a dis­trust of po­lice has al­ways been a part of an­ar­chism.”

“You know, I’ve never got­ten into any trou­ble with [cops],” Mcdon­agh adds. “But then I’m not a young black man in the South­ern states of Amer­ica, or any­where else.”

LAUGH­TER IN THE DARK Mcdon­agh wrot Three Bill­boards for Mc­dor­mand, above, and Rock­well, left, with the film­maker.

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