A vaguely Bergmanesque modality opens Martin McDonagh’s Academy Award winning short film Six Shooter (2004). An extreme close-up frames the face of Donnelly (Brendan Gleeson), laying bare the gamut of his shock and grief when a hospital doctor informs him of the unexpected death of his beloved spouse in the wee hours that morning.
But this is no weighty Bergman-like tome on death and its repercussions in the lives of loved ones left behind, in spite of the fact that death has captured many on its rounds through the night. The doctor is unable to spare more than a few minutes to console the grief stricken husband, there having been three other deaths for the staff to contend with that night. No less than two cot deaths and the fatal shooting of a mother by her son.
Before boarding a Dublin bound train home, Donnelly takes leave of his wife with a loving kiss on her inert lips and the presentation of a keepsake, a picture of a cherished pet of hers – a rabbit. On the train he snares a place opposite a young lad as extrovert and in the mood for the gab as the newly widowed is not. It soon becomes apparent that nothing in life is sacred for the Kid (Ruaidhrí Conroy). And death, most certainly, is not either.
The pair are joined in the carriage by a maudlin youngish couple, the parents of one of the cot death babies aforementioned. The teasing the Kid directs at them – he conjectures, among other things, that more than likely they were the ones responsible for their baby’s death – almost drives the father to violent retribution. Upset beyond words, the mother ultimately takes the most drastic of steps in response.
But not even this, carried out right in front of him, is sufficient to imbue respect for what others may be personally suffering in loss in the Kid. Yet, to his credit, he manages to partly win over a by this time less woebegone Donnelly with a hilarious story, deriving from his childhood, about a cow with trapped wind. The best day of my f….n’ life, he proudly proclaims.
It eventually dawns on Donnelly that the the Kid and the matricide he was told about at the hospital are one and the same. And further calamity is in store on what has already been a calamitous day in the lives of these strangers on a train. The ironic, bittersweet ending caps off an entertaining meditation on the problematical nature of private pain.
Death and grief, as well as the director’s liking for catching the audience off guard with totally unexpected ‘wham bam, thank you, m’am’ moments, also underpin his feature Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). Frustrated by the inability of the local police to find the person who raped and murdered her daughter Angela, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) opts for a unique bit of naming and shaming when she pays to rent out three long fallen into disrepair billboards on one of the entranceways into town.
This bull by the horns action sets her on a collision course with the police, though not so much the officer, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), actually named as his klutzy underling Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a lawman of unconventional methods who stands accused in the eyes of not a few of torturing blacks in custody. Many in the small Mid-west community share the establishment outrage at Mildred’s tactic and side with the popular chief. They view the woman’s stratagem as especially cheap and tactless given Willoughby is in the latter stages of a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Mildred is hardly a saint. However, the morality or otherwise of her moves aside, she is at her combative best when dealing with some of the acrimony she lets loose. Officer Dixon resorts to various means to try and coerce her to take down the billboards impugning the superior he looks up to, but she counter punches as well as the best of them. As she explains, she has nothing personal against the chief. She put his name up there in huge font, she says, only because the buck has to stop somewhere. He assures her in his turn that he deeply regrets not having been able to make headway in the yearlong investigation.
The film, arguably, is at its flimsiest when Mildred’s dysfunctional family comes under scrutiny. Her ex-husband, a jumped up former cop, has sought solace in the arms of a girl about the same age as his and Mildred’s lone surviving child Robbie (Lucas Hedges). As portrayed in a crucial flashback, Angela is precocious and nasty. Plenty of teens would be flat out denied use of Mom’s car, but few would react to the negative in the way she does. Is Mildred, a year down the road, riddled with guilt that she and her daughter parted on such a spiteful note and endeavouring in her twisted way to come to terms with her loss and heartache? Seeking justice? Vengeance? On the other hand, back in the present, Lucas Hedges as Robbie makes a good fist of the still coming to terms son and brother frustrated and angry that his mother has dredged up the whole awful business again.
If Chief Willoughby’s days are numbered, the way in which they do finally end represent another example of Mr. McDonagh’s characteristic ‘rug out from underneath’ tendency. The chief has his own surprises to pull too, though their ramifications are felt postmortem. And if the auteur is best at revealing other – frequently more human – sides of characters we may be just about ready to give up on, he succeeds as admirably with Officer Dixon as any of the other players.
There is something quite touching in Sam Rockwell’s ‘momma’s boy’ cop (Sandy Martin plays Momma in an excellent turn), especially when he oversteps the mark and finds himself all at sea. We are ultimately led to believe the faith his chief had in him, contrary to the multitude of dissenting voices, might not be misplaced after all. What he has learnt about himself could go on to stand him in good stead. Both he and Mildred, unlikely allies once the dust settles, have dabbled in fire, but appear set for a tandem assumption of greater responsibility for their actions in future.
Ben Davis’s cinematography sits well with Carter Burwell’s original score. Also evocatively featured, to name a few, are a haunting rendition of Last Rose of Summer (Thomas Moore) by Renee Fleming, Townes Van Zandt’s Buckskin Stallion Blues, and The Four Tops cover of Left Bank’s golden oldie Walk Away Renee.