By: Brett Slaughenhaupt—Staff Writer
Martin McDonagh, writer and director of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” has made a career out of cynicism and pitch black humor.
Before his foray into filmmaking, he was a playwright, which is evidenced by his focus on characters and the situations they find themselves in. The settings and activities surrounding each of his films are vastly different—his first, “In Bruges,” is set in Europe, while his last two, “Seven Psychopaths” and “Three Billboards” are in L.A. and Missouri, respectively. Each of these films built off of vastly different cultures and plotlines through which they followed, but what ties them all together is a philosophical existentialism and an understanding that hate drives the human experience.
His latest venture, “Three Billboards” finds Mildred (Frances McDormand, always at the top of her game), a small town woman working in a small shop, dealing with the trauma of her daughter, Angela’s, unsolved murder. With each passing minute the killer remains at large, and Mildred becomes more restless.
Until one day, while passing by the site of her daughter’s death, a field of grass with three decrepit billboards which can be seen from her own house, she has a revelation: why not put those billboards to use?
Billboard 1: “Raped while dying.”
Billboard 2: “Still no arrests?”
Billboard 3: “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
Just as quickly as the billboards were put up, the town had been lit on fire—both metaphorically and literally. Calling out the police chief (Woody Harrelson), a man who is quietly, but not unnoticeably to the townspeople, dying from cancer, Mildred is setting her sights to the very top. There is no stopping this woman who is out to take down anyone, friend or foe, who will get in her way.
When Willoughby stops by Mildred’s house to try to talk her out of this vendetta, using his illness as a guilt-trip, she responds with a stern look, saying that the billboards won’t be nearly as impactful after he’s dead. This lack of sentiment sets the tone for the entire film.
McDormand gives a remarkable performance that is equal parts searing anger and paralyzing regret. In the one flashback we see prior to Angela’s murder, context is built, and revelations are given as to the full extent of Mildred’s guilt over her daughter’s death. It is a beautiful set-up that begins to uncover what “normal” life was like for Mildred and her two children, one that was on edge from teenage angst as well as the complicated decisions made by the adults. If the rest of the film had lived up to what this short scene was able to accomplish, it would have been nearly perfect.
Outside of Mildred and Chief Willoughby, the film tries to fill out the town with enough characters to envelope the lived-in quality of Ebbing’s “small town-ness.” Complicated characters are always welcome, and the small town of Ebbing, Missouri is rife with them.
Not most of all is the dumb, racist cop Dixon, played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell. Having been the main source of the torturing of black people, but also still respected by his peers, Dixon represents the the politics of the town. He is a source of turmoil both within and without the case of Angela’s murder—his mentor is Chief Willoughby, and he will do anything for the man. We are also introduced to Mildred’s son (Lucas Hedges) and abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes), the head of advertising that oversees the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones), and a local man who finds himself wrapped up in Mildred’s plans (Peter Dinklage).
Maybe it is the execution on McDonagh’s part or the high-caliber actors who are filling these roles, but the film only ever seems to be able to “tell” us what kind of town it is we are in rather than giving us the lived-in feeling for which it strives so hard.
Scathing questions of how the “n—– -torturing business is going” that the police partake in (to which the officer glibly responds, “it’s ‘persons of color’-torturing these days”) and light southern drawls are useful in giving us the complicated politics and culture but never complete the picture. One of the reasons it fails in this aspect is the inability to place the racism and homophobia that is so quickly spouted outside of the context of its largely white characters. That’s not to say black people don’t exist in this film—they do—they just aren’t given any personality outside of being a recognizable face. It only doesn’t know how to scrutinize its own characters. So busy are they to throw out abuse upon each other, they don’t worry about the consequences of actions beyond the physical.
Toward the end of the film, one Mildred and her ex-husband have a passing conversation where he tells her something his (very young, and very dumb) girlfriend told him: “hate only begets more hate.” To which Dinklage’s character responds, “she said ‘begets?’” It’s a humorous moment that begins to underline that philosophy behind the film itself.
Up to this point, interaction across town, regardless of character, has been fueled by an anger or hatred of the other. McDonagh has created a town—seemingly one to represent the entire county—that is acting as a black hole. Each character finds themselves falling down a rabbit hole of hate with seemingly no way out; I’m not sure the characters want to find a way out.
Photos Taken from vox.com and wallstreetjournal.com