Is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, all it's cracked up to be? 

Martin McDonagh doesn't write plays, he writes pantomimes.

That fact has always been true since the start of his award-winning career, when his blunt 'oh no it's not, oh yes it is' dialogue brought the conflict and sophistication of a Punch and Judy show to Broadway and the West End (courtesy of the Druid Theatre) in his character's onstage exchanges.

It's a measure of how irrelevant to most people's lives the theatre has become these days that plays these jarringly one-dimensional plays have been elevated to the condition of cultural artifacts, spoken of in the same breath with acknowledged masters like Friel, Murphy and Beckett.

The truth is McDonagh does irony like a bricklayer, laying it on thick.
He has always been closer to the shoot em up gonzo films of Quentin Tarantino than the theatre, because his metaphors always announce themselves like billboards.

Martin McDonagh directing on set

Martin McDonagh directing on set

And speaking of billboards, social media erupted with howls of angry protest this Sunday when his latest film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri made a clean sweep of the Golden Globes.

It's 'Crash' all over again said the critics, referring to the infamous Get Out Of Jail vote that permitted Academy members in 2006 to pick that now forgotten film over the acknowledged classic Brokeback Mountain, which the voters admired but did not want to endorse with a Best Picture win (because gay cowboys, duh).

Three Billboards has been praised by some critics for its 'edgy' humor, which mostly involves white men being racist and homophobic, albeit consciously so.

Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards

Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards

On Sunday night actor Sam Rockwell won a supporting actor Golden Globe for his portrayal of Officer Dixon, the one-dimensional racist cop whose bigotry, McDonagh's film suggests, is the result of how he was raised, rather than a choice he makes himself.

As Three Billboards progresses one thing becomes clear, the author has crafted a giant moral and metaphorical miasma, and it seems to exist only to provide characters with the opportunity to say and do outrageous things without much consequence.

There's no dramatic payoff by the film's end. The film fades rater than concludes. The case that led to the three billboards erection has not been solved.

The sheriff who was slighted for his efforts has shot himself before the cancer that was threatening to kill him could. Even the force of nature hero played by Frances McDormand hasn't found justice for her daughter's escaped killer.

But worst of all, Rockwell's Officer Dixon, who has spent most of the film violently assaulting the innocent, has a last minute awakening that sees him reconsider if not quite renounce his former racism. Dixon, the film asks us to understand, is just misunderstood. On some level he's a nice guy.

This kind of thinking isn't just half baked, it's criminally lazy. Becoming a racist in America isn't just come down to who your parents were or what your zip code is. It's systemic. It's codified in the law and in culture and in history and its handed down in a myriad of ways, subtle and unsubtle.

You don't become a racist just because you have unresolved anger issues, nor do you divest yourself of the consequences of your actions because you have suddenly found a more authentic way to live.

Frances McDormand gives a lighthouse performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand gives a lighthouse performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

What's remarkable is how consistent McDonagh has been on these issues throughout his career. Although his characterization is always an inch deep he has routinely turned to ethnicity for cheap laughs.

In some plays its the stage Irish and their laughably atavistic ways; in Three Billboards he gives us comedy racists in 2018. Look at these guys, aren't they outrageous, the film says?  Look at them saying and doing the things that the elderly white middle-class audience who can still afford to pay for theatre tickets can only dream of saying and doing. 

Given these facts has any director who has directed a Beckett or Synge script ever asked themselves what they're doing reviving The Lonesome West or A Skull in Connemara? Are they spending their time as productively working on a McDonagh script as they could be working with Friel or Murphy or Deevey?

Maybe it's time they asked themselves.

Sam Rockwell goes up against Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriFox Searchlight