Director: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson
Culpability hangs heavy over the residents of Ebbing, Missouri in Martin McDonagh’s latest film. In an early scene, embittered and grieving resident Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) whips out a flashy piece of dialogue aimed at the local pastor, more or less accusing him of culpability in the misdeeds of other ministers by association. Another one in the club. Another such club is the town’s police force, which has tolerated or covered-up the racist brutality of one of its officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). The events of the film will lead these two on a collision course, but Mildred’s supposed high ground is built on shaky foundations.
Just as the murder of Laura Palmer caused a domino effect of misdeeds and revelations in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s sleepy town of Twin Peaks, so the horrific death of Mildred’s daughter Andrea proves the spark that ignites all that follows here. We join the drama some months after the event and local police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has failed to find the culprit. Frustrated that her cause has been seemingly forgotten, Mildred pays for an accusatory question to be displayed over three billboards on the outskirts of town. Her signs spell out – in black Impact font on blood-red like some violent meme – her indignation, and they force the residents of the otherwise passive community (another club) to take a position. In short they spell controversy, which no police department of any size wants.
McDormand took a role in outfitting her character, picking overalls and a bandanna, openly recalling the “We can do it!” sloganeering of the famed 1943 war propaganda poster. Mildred’s billboards are her own propaganda, an advertisement for her furious outrage. The public broadcast of emotion is generally shamed in society as self-indulgent. Here it also shakes up the status quo. McDormand is a whirlwind of resolve within the film, Mildred holds herself together to project her tough-as-boots mentality. It’s a veneer so well honed and guarded that she only lets it down in the presence of a wild animal. This much-needed counterpoint helps us to understand the war she is fighting. While a flashback provides some context, too. Culpability might loom over the film, but so does the desire to atone and the resolve to redeem one’s self.
Which brings us to the thorny subject of Officer Dixon. Three Billboards has faced criticism from some quarters for Dixon’s arc; something I’m reticent to delve into too deeply for fear of tipping too many of McDonagh’s cards. I would argue that, while Dixon indeed changes throughout the course of the picture (and we’re given a brutal example of his temper midway through), the suggestion that he is wholeheartedly redeemed paints Three Billboards as more cleanly cut than the movie McDonagh has made. His writing may be showy, but it is lived in and knotty. Nobody here swings from evil to good or vice versa. People, generally, aren’t easily reduced to such binary definitions. Nevertheless, the brio for building that argument is there.
McDonagh’s reputation for such generous and considered writing precedes him and thus he’s had no trouble building a stunning cast here. McDormand is on the kind of form she’s been boasting her whole career, and along with Rockwell she’s already been rewarded at the Golden Globes, but the remainder aren’t to be sniffed at. Harrelson is quietly impressive as Willoughby; a decent guy saddled with bum cards and the world looking over his shoulder. Even the small roles are taken up by some of the finest character actors out there (hello John Hawkes, Kerry Condon, Clarke Peters to name but a few). And McDonagh’s continuing preoccupation with dwarves (see In Bruges) allows Peter Dinklage some respite from the winters of Westeros. McDormand shares a scene with him that rivals the Mike Yanagita one from Fargo as the most unusual dinner of her acting career. In terms of casting, McDonagh couldn’t have done much better.
This is not a whodunnit, despite a murder mystery sitting at the narrative’s centre. Rather this is an essay in frustration, both on a personal and societal level. Mildred’s billboards are not a personal attack on Willoughby; the two of them get on quite well. But it does symbolise an element of wish-fulfillment from the harangued individual who feels ignored by the unseen machinations of the authorities around her. Standing up in protest against powerful establishments can feel like a lost cause. Where do you begin and where do you draw the line? What is the cost? The act of civil protest is a pertinent one at a time when many feel as though their leaders have lost sight of their own interests. It seems tired to pepper reviews with comments on how timely some films are, but art when it’s engaging with its times can’t help but reflect them. Three Billboards itemises the potential costs and rewards of civil disobedience. Just as it outlines the pitfalls and tragedies of more violent methods. Violence begets violence. Just as Mildred’s ex-husband’s 19-year-old girlfriend.
Tonally, McDonagh goes back to the well, peppering his drama with dirty-bomb dialogue exchanges and wry comedic observations. In doing so he confronts the audience with darkness and light, sometimes in uncomfortable proximity. At one point some foolishness at the police station gets the audience laughing, then McDonagh cuts to another scene, one that opens with crime scene photos, exposing the ugliness of Andrea’s fate. You may not be done laughing when this images are in front of you. Such collisions compliment the ambiguities of the story being told. The dialogue can seem too-perfect and some of the situations a little too neatly plotted, but butting the hysterical against the horrible goes some way to letting McDonagh off the hook for this. Three Billboards is tidy, but not too tidy.
While his film isn’t afraid to pick at the ugliness of humanity and thus feel truthful, McDonagh’s comedic tics along with the overt eloquence of some of the dialogue just manages to shatter the illusion. Though a finely made film, his background in theatre announces itself in these tactics. But that’s a small quibble. I can accept theatricality. Ebbing, Missouri has become a little microcosm of America in this decade. How does a country solve such problems? McDonagh’s finale here suggests, quite rightly, that that’s still a work-in-progress.