In praise of actors
Real stars perhaps only exist when the image industry is booming
Le salaire du zappeur (literally The Zapper’s Reward; in French a pun on the original title of Clouzot’s classic thriller The Wages of Fear] was published in 1988, when television had already passed its zenith and entered into decline. Reading it today is like going back to a lost civilization: it’s about a period which perhaps went by too quickly and of which I now find it hard to uncover any trace, except in my own memories as a barely adolescent viewer. The television scene and the place it occupies today have changed beyond recognition; even the small screen itself is different. Paradoxically, it has become more like the cinema screen: bigger, more selective in programming, more clearly set apart in its position in the home. It is no longer anything like the interface between the citizen and the world which it was for a generation – my own. Today the image industry lives in other media. Much more than was the case with television, the majority of images today are of the human body or the face only. Often – too often – a body asking us to be like it. Much more than was the case with television, the proliferation of images and their universal availability has encouraged their standardization. As Jonathan Franzen puts it in Farther Away, “instead of mapping the self onto a narrative, [the Internet] maps the self onto the world. Instead of the news, my news.”
When Daney writes about the difference between a movie star and a TV star, or even just a starlet, his imagery is instantly contemporary. Who are the stars of the 21st century? Do they still exist in the age of Instagram and the selfie? Today as never before actors shape the marketplace, populate our iconography and decide the direction taken by moviemaking, including – in fact especially – independent production. They are very far from the stars of yesteryear, the stars who by keeping a distance between their lives and their public image managed to communicate with an audience whose age, culture and gender were indifferent. Today the stars – assuming the word still has the same meaning that Daney gave it – must communicate themselves, broadcast who they’re going out with, where they’re going on vacation, what they’re wearing this season. Like it or not, today’s stars are influencers, guiding the public not towards that pure desire which is subject to the mechanism of projection (I project myself onto the star in order to live through something which is not mine), but towards a desire whose object is to purchase something (I see it so I buy it). Unable to buy the body, I will buy the garment that it wears, the place where it hangs out...
Within this ever more tightly regulated framework, the cinema as a factory of stories often comes off worse. In the final analysis, the movie plot counts for little; it is certainly not what makes the star. The stars live on crystallized images, their walks along the red carpet repeated ad infinitum on social media. Or at best they appear in memorable scenes that last as long as they are trending on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram... With such a basic system in place, not only is it not necessary to be an actor to become a star (which after all has always been true, in every period), but to be an actor at the service of a character can even become counter-productive.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film which makes clear right from the title that it is not going to go down the simple route, the straightforward path of direct communication which likes a movie to have an easily remembered name with one or two words only. It is also a film which cannot be reduced to a single image or scene, although it has many strong and memorable scenes. Instead it lives together with its characters. It is a film which does not rely on a star cast but requires that its actors perform elusively. It brings out the best in the performers’ technical abilities but at the same time has them step into the shoes of ordinary people, highlighting their weaknesses, stubbornness and faults. It is a film that convinces precisely because it initially comes across as unappealing and vulgar – in the etymological sense of the word, from vulgus, the common people.
Martin McDonagh has taken a tragic storyline in the grand tradition of film noir, the genre that addresses absolute evil, the evil that should rightfully remain faceless, and grafted it onto an extremely solid, practical foundation. The clothes and the words smack of earth, of people with dirty hands, with breath as bad as the smell of their shoes.
No surprise, therefore, to find in the cast three magnificent actors who, each in their own way, love their character more than themselves. Frances McDormand is Mildred Hayes, whose young daughter Angela was raped and murdered, the culprit yet to be found. Woody Harrelson is sheriff Bill Willoughby whose failure to solve the crime is broadcast by the three billboards bought by the angry mother, whose demands he can no more meet than he can defeat the disease eating him away from the inside. Sam Rockwell is police officer Jason Dixon, under the heel of his dominating mother and of the blowhard persona that betrays his own inner fragility.
Martin McDonagh weaves his tale in a manner that allows every character to develop, subtly but fundamentally. The story, the search for Angela’s killer, is a crack widening in the fragile humanity of small town America, undermining its few remaining certainties. In the end, it is just this almost imperceptible development which makes bearable a situation that in effect is no different from the one at the beginning. The change in question does not lie in the unfolding of the narrative, which has no chase, interrogation or courtroom scenes, instead highlighting the underlying violence through a background of fist fights, shouting matches, vicious kicks, blazing fires and handguns being fired off camera. The narrative progresses in the faces and the bodies of the actors, who – without substantially altering their performances – still convey that something has changed. This use of detail (a walk, a greeting, a glance) is a typically filmic process: never out in the open, but requiring the careful gaze of a viewer immersed in the story and the characters to pick up the hints. Unlike much of contemporary noir, which often takes violence to such extremes as to sideline the actual story, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film which moves the viewer because of the humanity conveyed by its characters in being anti-heroes, in being tough outside but weak within – weak from start to finish – yet capable of finding in their very weaknesses the way to get through. The world off camera may apparently be as ugly and violent as the one we see on screen, but the subtle communication that grows up between the three characters – despite their opposing positions – affords a glimpse, through the fog of the present, of a delicate safety net.Carlo Chatrian