Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

They wasted a perfectly good short story title

billboardsMartin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that makes you question what you want to know, sympathizes with lots of people no other film will, challenges characters who have the best intentions, and ends in a much different place than viewers probably want it to. In other hands, the film would focus on Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) quest to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, because that’s Mildred’s single motivation throughout the story. However, reality ensues: it’s not always that easy. Resources for such a quest are hard to come by. The authorities are useless. She has another kid (Lucas Hedges) to focus on. And beyond all that, it’s just not what the movie is about.

Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) left the house one day after a fight with her mom, and was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant. A year later, the police have come up with nothing, having seemingly forgotten about the case, so Mildred purchases ad space on three defunct billboards on a lesser-used route into town. Put together, the message reads, “Raped while dying and still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?” The police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson at his best) isn’t exactly an obstructionist, but he’s done all he can legally do, and on top of that, he’s dying of cancer. If that weren’t enough, his most assertive officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a racist layabout whose brutal nature and utter incompetence have gone unpunished for years, so hell if there’s anyone in Ebbing who can actually hunt down a suspect who may have been nothing but a drifter who passed through town a year ago.

The film’s narrative involves Mildred’s war on the town rather than the hunt for the killer (which may or may not begin at the very end, depending on how you look at it), and is mostly a study of Ebbing’s various personalities. Mildred is a classic anti-hero, complete with plenty of anvil-drop scenes that emphasize just how badass she is, but the film often invites us to critique her actions: blowing up a police station, beating on minors, being rude to dwarfs and the terminally ill, etc. But she’s been through it all. Besides the loss of her daughter, she’s had to endure years of abuse by her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), who still won’t just go away. Bits of her real self – or at least the caring, mama-bear-type side of the self we see here – reveal themselves in interesting places, but her emotional scars prevent her from ever being who she was before, just like the literal scar on the town where Angela’s body was burned.

Willoughby and Dixon are the other characters who are examined closely, sometimes in the right way and sometimes not. The film spends a perhaps unnecessary amount of time with Willoughby and his family, leading up to Willoughby’s inevitable suicide, whereupon he leaves parting gifts and advice to a few folks, including Mildred and Dixon. These sequences are mainly used to beat the audience over the head with the idea that one needs love and compassion to achieve their desires – advice both Mildred and Dixon can use in spades. However, Willoughby could have spent more time guiding his right-hand man more closely, rather than making excuses for his race-motivated torture of citizens and allowing him to just keep on squeaking by.  By the time Dixon receives Willoughby’s heartfelt letter, it’s too late for him to become a real detective. Worse, the film turns Dixon into Mildred’s fellow anti-hero without punishing him for his racism or his unwarranted violence against innocent people (which includes punching a young girl in the face), or even giving the slightest hint that he’s going to change his ways. Instead the film creates this “face turn” in the cheapest way possible: simply introducing someone much shittier (a bar patron who threatens Mildred and brags about sexually assaulting women). McDonagh’s thematic material needs some work in this respect. It’s difficult to reconcile the film’s overt messages of love and compassion with its demand that the audience show these things for characters that haven’t really earned it.

This is McDonagh’s third film to include conspicuous racism (In Bruges had the “race war” tirade; Seven Psychopaths had Woody Harrelson throwing the N-word around and murdering Black women), more or less without comeuppance for the perpetrators. It’s his second film to use a dwarf as a comic sidekick/victim of “midget” talk. Maybe I’m being too critical of minutiae, but if the whole point is just that shitty people exist and aren’t usually punished for their shittiness, then fine, we get it. But you’re making works of art. Do something with that. Or at least have an idea about it.

The film ends with Mildred and Dixon driving to Idaho to maybe kill a rapist who had nothing to do with Angela’s death, beginning a possible cycle of vigilantism and taking matters into their own hands. Much like Mildred’s experiences must be for the real-life people who experience them, the final shot is the beginning of a story that never ends. Ultimately, the film’s greatest success is what it says about agency, and the lengths the desperate are willing to go to obtain it.

billboards2Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.

 

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