Orient Express and Three Billboards: Cynicism and Snark

Everyone’s guilty and treacherous. And small-town America is full of racists and yokels.

For weeks now, a critic friend has responded to each pop-up Facebook ad for the Murder on the Orient Express remake with a simple comment: “They all did it.”

More than just a clever show of movie memory, that democratically justified social-media post simultaneously struck down spoiler mania and Hollywood’s obsession for remakes-over-originality. It also got at the underlying message in Kenneth Branagh’s version of the Agatha Christie whodunit about swanky passengers on a European luxury train embroiled in a murder mystery: All are guilty.

This message, a condensation of post-election, globalist cynicism, comes across loud and clear in Branagh’s showboating direction (pointless, zooming imagery shot in 65mm) and his dull show-offing in the role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who interrogates each traveler. The main difference from Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version is the absence of movie-star stature and glamour. Branagh’s third-rate cast (including Johnny Depp, repeating his Whitey Bulger, and Michelle Pfeiffer, repeating her harridan in Mother) represents modern tacky show business, and each person in the ensemble (including Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. for black diversity) is revealed to be culpable — not in an eccentrically amusing, movie-star way, but as a drab condemnation of mankind’s treachery. This is not entertainment; it is, simply, a spoiler.

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British playwright Martin McDonagh brings that decadence home — to the U.S. — in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Why McDonagh didn’t go ahead and set his film in Ferguson is the only mystery element. Everything else in this story of a mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand), seeking justice for her daughter’s murder, uses recent, familiar flashpoints to indict the modern American condition (in which redress is popularly confused with justice).

McDonagh doesn’t seem to know as much about American culture as the makers of American Made, which depicted a truer panorama of Midwestern convention clashing with eccentricity. But he has obviously studied snarky archetypes and therefore populates his town with figures from Tarantinoland and the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. This mash-up of provincialism and corruption features racist, sexist cops (headed by Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby) who seem to be stonewalling the murder investigation. The worst officer, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), expresses the town’s backwardness with epithets and profanity. There’s also a small contingent of truculent blacks, including the owner of Southern Charm Gift Shop, who encourages Mildred: “Go, girl. You go fuck those cops up!”

McDonagh uses the worst, yet fashionable, methods of class caricature.

Mildred’s protest is McDonagh’s cleverest idea. She rents three contiguous roadside billboards, each blaring a message: “Raped While Dying / And Still No Arrests? / How Come, Chief Willoughby?” These combine sleaze, frustration, and blame. McDonagh uses advertising as a metaphor for aggravated communication, as apparent in our media and social relations, but, regrettably, it’s also a foreigner’s careless simplification of America’s current unease. McDonagh isn’t above exploiting this discomfort, so he uses the worst, yet fashionable, methods of class caricature.

Because this Brit has no appreciation for the intricacies of ambivalent American attitudes, the behavior on view is alternately obvious, coarse, and sentimental. He needs actors who can authenticate these pulp-fiction roles, but it is our misfortune that so many performers these days take on social-justice platitudes and facile dissent. McDormand’s “tough as an old boot” Mildred never yields to the maternal generosity of Joan Crawford’s legendary Mildred Piece (which McDonagh mocks); instead, she’s either tense or less tense, prone to tirades or vengeance. At one point, she even throws Antifa-style Molotov cocktails at the town jailhouse.

But McDonagh’s Mother Courage isn’t just angry, she’s smug. One of her insufferable speeches lectures a priest on pederasty (McDonagh’s term isn’t so nice) and likens the priesthood to a street gang, repeatedly calling him “culpable.” The real offense is that McDormand can’t summon or imagine a look of hurting. Yet this failure is bigger than McDormand herself; she intuits a cultural mood and, as with congressional spoilsports John Lewis, Frederica Wilson, and Maxine Waters, who trade on civil-rights-era sympathies, her only expressive recourse is overly practiced rage. This emotional rigidity, in our contentious time, has taken the place of righteousness.

When McDonagh gets self-righteous about lecturing and distorting America, he becomes illogically mawkish. Rockwell’s trashy cop turns from sarcastic race-baiter (“It’s ‘persons-of-color’ torturing business”) to lovable vigilante — that’s McDonagh’s idea of progress. Dixon’s conversion comes about through a series of posthumous letters, read in a schmaltzy voice-over, that are this year’s most obnoxious, indecent movie contrivance so far. McDonagh’s jaded philosophy spills out when Mildred ponders the big “why”: “Cuz there ain’t no God? The whole world’s empty, and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other?” But McDonagh goes for snark, not feeling, in this speech and in McDormand’s reading. Not even Tarantino would dare such sodden self-pity. Given Hollywood’s left-wing conformity, McDonagh can jumble clichés and judgments and then declare himself a political, social know-it-all, even though he’s an outsider. Three Billboards attests to his bizarre affection/repulsion for America. It’s a Kaepernick Komedy.

Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.


Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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