“Three Billboards” is a game, too – a cinematic game in which the writer and director, Martin McDonagh, feigns empathy with a magician’s sleight of hand. His characters’ ordeals, demands, sacrifices, and redemptions fit together like, well, a jigsaw puzzle, and he retrofits their traits and experiences to fit. In “Three Billboards,” I have the sense that, despite the fulsome emotional displays, McDonagh is far more interested in his narrative contraptions and contrivances than in his characters, who exist solely to play their part in the plot. His characters are robotic silhouettes spouting gaudily profane wisdom that is dispensed two hundred and eighty characters at a time; his excellent actors have to sweat every line, weigh every gesture, and pose every gaze, pouring every ounce of their skill into humanizing the flimsy simulacra that are written for them. (McDormand’s controlled fury, more than any other factor, keeps the film unified and dramatically engaging even when little else does.) McDonagh also scatters progressive political crumbs throughout the film, and his obscene trivialization of their substance is displayed in the cavalier casualness with which a black woman’s arrest and imprisonment on trumped-up charges drops in as a plot point and out with a smile.
As for violence and gore, McDonagh seems more turned on by it than the Spierigs are. Though I’m squeamish, I found the scenes of grotesquely and meticulously imagined torture in “Jigsaw” to reflect a degree of restraint, bordering on aversion – which suggests that the filmmakers’ actual interests lie elsewhere. McDonagh’s theme of expiation by violence plays a repellent double game; even as his plot pivots on the acknowledgment of misdirected anger and the emotional effort to overcome it, the movie reflects an almost erotically tantalizing excitement at the prospect of showing the gory impact of that warped rage. McDonagh seems excited by it, and he displays it with a blend of suspense-building anticipation and blatant enthusiasm that reflects his own arousal and is meant to arouse viewers as well.