The time for worshipping the old gods is over.
Put aside your idols and your holy books.
Because the only holy book you need in your life is Frances McDormand’s IMDB page.
The only idol you need guiding the way is Marge Gunderson.
Not long ago, Pajiba published its review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri from out of the Toronto International Film Festival. It was a damn tantalising review, one that made me happy while reading it, as personally I had had my eye on this movie for a long time. Through announcement, to development, to release, I watched it with a beady eye, with scrutiny and with quiet anticipation. Why? Because the man behind it—writer-director Martin McDonagh—might just be (alongside Jeff Nichols) the best pound-for-pound filmmaker working today.
Yes he’s only made two feature-length movies before Ebbing, but they are both something quite special. 2012’s Seven Psycopaths is a mad, colourful odyssey that gets better with each viewing; and 2008’s In Bruges? Well, there aren’t really enough words in the English language to accurately convey the scope of the brilliance of In Bruges. It’s a sort of miracle, that movie, and the fact that it was McDonagh’s debut feature boggles the mind. The push and pull of dramatic tension, the black-as-night humour combined with real, weighty pathos, the lush and detailed cinematography, the absolutely fantastic characterisation—really, it’s an embarrassment of riches, and every filmmaker who didn’t make In Bruges—no matter how otherwise accomplished or celebrated—should consider that fact solemnly and henceforth intone a grounding, humble mantra once a month:
‘Yea, for though I consider myself mighty,
And I gaze upon my Academy Awards shelf nightly,
I must forever reckon with the fact,
That it was McDonagh, not me, who made In Bruges,
That goddamn talented twat.’
One of McDonagh’s main strengths is gathering to his side supremely gifted groups of performers. Just check out the Ebbing cast, it’s stacked:
In the TIFF review linked above, Jason Bailey goes into just how well this suite of elite character actors enliven McDonagh’s brilliantly written movie, so I won’t repeat that point here. But Jason’s review also agrees with one of the main points uniting all the various opinions coming out about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, namely: Damn, how amazingly well does Frances McDormand fit into Martin McDonagh’s creative space, huh? And that I do want to get into more.
That McDormand and McDonagh should work so well together shouldn’t come as a surprise. The layers of humour, nuance, and drama present in McDonagh’s writing would seem to make his worlds a natural home for an actor such as Frances McDormand. And yet a strangely surprised tone is something that I have seen more than a few times now in the coverage of Ebbing. And like I say: There shouldn’t be any.
If there is to be some surprise linked to Frances McDormand it should be this: How has Frances McDormand not been at the absolute forefront of the movie scene for the past decade or two? Why are some people now sounding off in astonished tones at just how great she is? Shouldn’t this be as accepted a truism as Rosario Dawson making everything better?
McDormand is not the most prolific actor in Hollywood, but the Chicago-born performer has been at this game since 1984. Longer, if you count her earlier theatre work. But ‘84 is when she made her screen debut, in The Coen Brothers’ splendid and menacing neo-noir, Blood Simple. Already an assured and confident presence, the young McDormand navigates the Coen’s twisty, pulpy narrative with aplomb. Her character is, like all great noir heroes, caught up in the currents of often unseen forces, partly responsible for what assails her and partly a victim of circumstance. Wide-eyed and dipping in and out of the inky shadows that the Coens and their DP Barry Sonnenfeld (yes, that Barry Sonnenfeld, director of Men In Black and Wild Wild West) fill their frames with, McDormand proved a compelling and capable lead.
The Coen Brothers noticed these qualities in McDormand, and they would work with her repeatedly throughout the years—with Joel Coen also marrying McDormand in that same year that they first worked with her. The brothers would cast the actress in a significant proportion of their movies, understanding fully well that whether in a minor role or a more major one, Frances McDormand is an almost ineffable asset to have as part of your production.
Though the most prominent and prolific in their appreciation of her talents, the Coens are not the only filmmakers to be aware of McDormand’s power. Robert Altman weaved her into his sprawling patchwork Los Angeles in Short Cuts. Curtis Hanson had McDormand beguiling Michael Douglas’ college professor in his underappreciated adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys—a relatively minor role in terms of screen time, but one that is nevertheless significant both for the way its written and the way McDormand plays it. And of course, Cameron Crowe positioned McDormand as the over-caring heart and neurotic soul of his masterpiece (and perennial Pajiba favourite), Almost Famous. That movie, magical in so many ways though it is, lives and breathes thanks to McDormand’s performance anchoring William’s wild journey. Is it gauche to quote yourself? I don’t care, I’m doing it anyway:
Overbearing, stifling, oppressive; loving, supportive, empathetic—while William’s mother’s manners and behaviours are often used as a punchline in the movie, Crowe’s script and McDormand’s wonderful portrayal never let her devolve into a cartoon. We understand where she’s coming from, even if we may not always agree with her methods. Even while we’re whisked away on an adventure with William a part of us always stays back there at home with Elaine.
But great as these roles are, they do pale into insignificance somewhat when compared to McDormand’s tour de force—being married to the (probably) Zodiac!
That is to say: it’s not much of a stretch to posit McDormand’s Marge Gunderson as one of the great movie characters of the 20th century. It was the role that got her her Oscar (an achievement she later followed up with a Tony Award for the Broadway play Good People as well as an Emmy for the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge —thus making her one of the very few people to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting), and the film that contains it remains to this day one of the finest examples of American movie making. I am a huge, almost comically devoted fan of the works of the Coen Brothers. They are my favourite directors, and I race to the cinema whenever they announce a movie, without even needing to know the name or anything else about it. And while Fargo is not actually my personal favourite of theirs, in terms of sheer craft and technical and emotional oomph, it does take the Coen Cake.
Fargo’s Marge is just such a wonderfully written role, it’s at times tempting to think that almost anyone could have played her and it would have panned out well. After all, her warm humanity and steadfast, steely resolution is present already on the page in the Coens’ sublime script. Reading the words black on white she is already the Marge we now: As unyielding as she is loving, and as quietly ferocious as she is occasionally unsure of things. But to imagine that any other performer would have brought this magnificent creation to life quite like McDormand did is to be indulging in prime foolishness. It would be so easy for even the most experienced and assured actress to portray Marge in just such a way so as to almost spoil the character, because it is a role that balances precipitously on a cliff edge. In some ways, Marge Gunderson is a superhero. In Fargo’s blood-soaked world, she ends up saving the day—or at least what there is left of it to save. But McDormand plays her as a supremely relatable human being too. She is almost banal, domesticated, parochial—and she redefines what those words can mean and realigns our perceptions about what connotations they have. Her quick twitch of a smile, her searching blue eyes looking out onto the world, her ability to go onward, ever onward. When heroes like Marge walk among us; when they can go home and have a quiet dinner with their husbands after apprehending men sticking other men into wood chippers; that’s when you know you don’t need figures in capes or skintight spandex in order to save the world.
Frances McDormand does not appear in quite as many movies as I would like her to. The halls of the pop culture shrines that abound on the internet do not ring with her name nearly as much either. Those two things are related. So the release of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is for me a very welcome event indeed. A timely reminder, a righteous reinforcement.
Because really, we should never, ever be forgetting just how much of a gift Frances McDormand is to the world of American cinema.
Or, as one of our commenters here put it underneath the Ebbing review:
You can say that again.