Tag Archives: Save The Cat

Holy s***: a Catholic take on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

16 Jan

Frances McDormand’s grieving, angry mother faces down Sam Rockwell’s incompetent police officer in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The defining moment of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as good as any film we’ll see this year or next, comes, as it should, in the first few minutes. Frances McDormand stalks into a local advertising firm and demands to know: “What’s the law on what ya can and can’t say on a billboard? I assume it’s ya can’t say nothing defamatory, and ya can’t say ‘fuck’, ‘piss’ or ‘cunt’. That right?”

It’s her first line. Quite the introduction to our no-shits-given, no-shit-taken protagonist. But the key moment is not that. It’s this: moments later, she spots a cockroach waggling its legs upside-down on the window sill. We expect her to squash it. Instead, almost tenderly, she pokes it upright with one finger. It’s an insect variation on Blake Snyder’s famous “Save The Cat” advice for rendering a flawed hero likeable, but it’s also the crux of the film.

Three Billboards may appear to be all about aggression and violence, especially from the trailer, but really it’s all about forgiveness, compassion, redemption. And not the bullshit, two-bit redemption of Hollywood’s debased currency – “his daughter died so now he’ll save this other girl and that’ll make it right” – but redemption like Christ on the Cross, flogged and pierced with a lance and crowned with thorns, nails driven through his flesh into the unyielding wood, and still saying “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do”. A silent adjunct to the opening scene is that the young advertising guy is reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find when McDormand enters – a story in which a crotchety grandmother finally finds grace moments before being violently murdered.

I’ve been getting Biblical on your ass here because McDonagh so clearly is. Not overtly, not at all: in fact, there’s a wonderful scene in which Frances McDormand’s Mildred comes home to find the local priest in her kitchen, and rips the sanctimonious so-and-so a new one over the church’s condoning of “altarboy-fucking” of which, since he’s “a member of that club”, he is guilty by association. It would not surprise me if this reflected McDonagh’s own views. But lapsed or not, you can’t take the Catholic out of a boy so easily. I should know.

Any redemption in Three Billboards is Biblically hard won: through being disgraced, sacked, burned and pummelled in the face; through losing your daughter and being abused by your husband and still resisting the urge to smash his head in; through a dozen tiny acts of compassion (one of the greatest, and you’ll understand the heft of it when you see the film, is simply handing a badly injured man a straw) that in the end trump revenge.

I’ve been told that actors will riffle through a putative script looking for their “Oscar moment”. In Three Billboards Francis McDormand is given one, or else creates one, with every single scene. But my favourite is just the look she gives when the police chief (Woody Harrelson), whom she blames for not properly investigating her daughter’s rape and murder, inadvertently coughs blood into her face. Her face registers surprise, shock – but also sudden and helpless compassion.

There is a Christ figure in the film, too, if you want to read it that way (and I do), who through the sacrifice of his willing death sets troubled souls on the path to forgiving, and being forgiven. It’s a typically McDonaghesque reversal that that death should be through suicide, perhaps the greatest sin of all in the eyes of the official Church.

Three Billboards is an astonishing film: sacred and profane; tragic and laugh-out-loud hilarious. I want to see it again. After a year of election upsets, they say there are no certainties. But if Frances McDormand does not follow her Golden Globe with an Oscar it will be stranger than seeing Trump in the White House; and if Martin McDonagh does not pick up at least Best Screenplay, I predict a riot. And I’ll be handing out the Molotov cocktails.



Inside Llewyn Davies: why the Coen Brothers should save the cat

6 Feb

Oscar Isaac as Lwelyn Davies. With cat.

Caught up with Inside Llewyn Davies at last, and seriously – am I the only person in the world who doesn’t see it as a hallowed masterpiece? Seems that way. It scores 7.9 on IMDB, and its posters are constellated with five-star reviews. And not from Nothingradio FM or Randomblogger.com, either: from Time Out, the Independent, the Telegraph and Empire.

I bow to no one in my admiration for the Coen Brothers. When Blood Simple came out, even before I was a journalist and critic, I rushed home and filled four pages of my diary with thoughts about the film. I’ve seen every new release of theirs since. But Inside Llewyn Davies

Here’s the thing. Forget all the rigid rules of cinematic structure they teach you in scriptwriting class. That’s just the framework, the skeleton, the safety net for people not yet touched by the breath of genius. The Coens, they inhaled that breath. They don’t need to follow all the rules. But they’ve broken a doozy in this one. Their protagonist is not only thoroughly unsympathetic – a self-pitying, self-isolating, success-sabotaging beardy folk singer – but he doesn’t change. There is no arc. There is no character development.

The Coen Brothers aren’t stupid. I think they know this. And I think they are doing it as an experiment, a gigantic wheeze, just to see if they can get away with it.

They telegraph the lack of character development by repeating the closing scene at the beginning. Llewyn Davies is trapped in his own circle of hell; pick any point on the cycle, it will look pretty much the same. It’s not exactly the same scene – Bob Dylan, glimpsed in Davies’ audience during the opening, is now shown singing on stage as Davies leaves the bar, which will certainly change the world Davies inhabits  – but Davies himself remains and will always remain marooned inside his own bubble of failure.

They also telegraph his unsympathetic nature with a cinematic in-joke: Davies doesn’t save the cat. The late Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide Save The Cat has become something of an industry bible since it was published in 2005. Its title refers to Snyder’s opening advice to make your protagonist sympathetic. Boozy, misanthropic, violent and washed-up he may be, but have him save a cat within the first few scenes and the audience will root for him all the way. In Inside Llewyn Davies, the hero not only hits a cat with his car, he… well, I don’t want to write any spoilers.

Inside Llewyn Davies is well acted, beautifully shot, lovingly recreates an iconic place and time in the Greenwich folk scene of 1961, has some terrific song sequences bravely played out in full, and offers the usual deliciously baroque cameo from John Goodman (as a clapped-out junkie jazz man with, literally, rose-tinted spectacles). I got a lot more out of it than most movies I see.

But it didn’t engage me. It didn’t touch me. I didn’t care. It was as lifeless to me as an old album cover from before I was born.

All the Coen Brothers’ latest experiment in rule-breaking proves to me is that there are some script-writing rules that should never be broken.