Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
Produced by Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Martin McDonagh
Cinematography by Ben Davis
Music by Carter Burwell
Edited by Jon Gregory
Bow Tie Harbor 9, Annapolis, MD (1:55)
“Anger begets anger.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about the movies that get nominated for awards, probably because we’re in the thick of awards season right now. Although I no longer watch awards shows and don’t consider them a valid indicator of a movie’s value, I find myself thinking about them more than I probably should. I sometimes wonder how many films are nominated due to the fact that they’re well-crafted works of art and how many are nominated due to their being timely, regardless of their artistic merit. No doubt some films are both. Both Get Out and Mudbound, for instance, deal with racism (certainly a timely topic) in very different ways, and yet both of those films are quite good. Yet Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri not only deals with racism, it also addresses justice and miscarriages of justice, police brutality, vigilanteism, divorce, broken homes, small town life, small thinking, and more. Does the film contain too many themes for the finished product to be effective? I thought so during the film’s first hour. But during the second?
After seven months, the police in Ebbing, Missouri are no closer to solving the rape and murder of a young girl named Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) than they were from the outset. Angela’s mom Mildred (Frances McDormand), fed up that Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has turned up not one clue, decides to rent three billboards on a remote road that few people travel. The billboards in sequence read: “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS” and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”
Although a few locals admire Mildred’s bold move, the billboards mostly spark anger and indignation from the townspeople and especially the police department including Sheriff Willoughby and a clueless loudmouth officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Even the owner of the billboard company (Caleb Landry Jones) feels the pressure. To make things worse, Mildred’s teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is being harassed at school.
The forcefulness of black comedy in what seemed a tragic drama almost made me walk out of the theater today. I kept thinking that this was all too much, that no one in their right mind would hire a police officer as racist and stupid as Dixon, that no parent would act as Willoughby does (or as Mildred does in real time and in a flashback), that no such blatant police brutality would be tolerated. Then I thought, “Look at the world we live in.” This is where we are: broken people, broken lives, moral ambiguity, nothing being done about injustices, anger followed by more anger. Sometimes it takes someone who is not an American, such as Irish director McDonagh to show us who we are, like it or not. I do think that McDonagh probably has too many plates spinning in the air, but during the film’s second hour, I began to look with fascination on how the plates never quite toppled to the ground.
Other critics disagree and they certainly have the right to do so. The scenes of black comedy do introduce an element of unbelievability (if not fantasy) to the film, but how surreal is our own world in 2017? We think the things that occur onscreen in Three Billboards are simply too far-fetched, but all you have to do to convince yourself otherwise is to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news. We may not know what the truth is, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to do something about it. Or do nothing.
I digress. McDonagh keeps the film from turning into farce by focusing on Mildred’s pain and hurt and also by hiring a stellar cast. It’s difficult to think of the film being co-owned by anyone other than Mildred, yet you have several things vying for audience attention: Willoughby’s body deteriorating with cancer, Dixon’s loose-cannon policing, Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes) and his 19-year-old lover (Samara Weaving), Red (Jones) the billboard company owner, and a local car salesman (Peter Dinklage). The cast is amazing, but if anyone truly competes for ownership of the film, it’s Sam Rockwell. His character transformation is good, but not too good (by which I mean too fast). Once his burns have healed from the fire caused by Mildred, Dixon’s voice sounds almost like Willoughby’s, either due to his burns or perhaps because he’s becoming wiser and more like Willoughby. And speaking of Willoughby, we wonder if he really was telling Mildred the truth: maybe they really didn’t have much to go on to find Angela’s killer. Although his cancer is certainly having an effect on his life and possibly his job performance, he could actually be a pretty fair cop who’s just barely holding the entire police department together.
Three Billboards asks many questions and whether or not we see ourselves in it, it makes us uneasy, which I take as a good thing. In the end, I believe the film suffers from too much unevenness and too many unbelievable situations, but it also packs a whole round of punches to the gut. By the end of the film, we aren’t really sure what’s going to happen next, which is as it should be. Have these characters really learned from the quote that opens this review or will they give in to its inevitability? We can only guess.
Three Billboards will undoubtedly earn McDormand an Oscar nomination and a supporting role for Rockwell, but I’ll be surprised if it gets a Best Picture nomination. (Today it was announced that the film is nominated for six Golden Globe Awards.) Maybe it will. It’s timely enough, but is it good enough?
Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Trailer Addict, The Atlantic, Midroad Movie Review