Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by Martin McDonagh
By Noel Vera
MARTIN MCDONAGH? Much-honored playwright and to be fair I’ve yet to see any of his theater work, but the movies…
McDonagh’s debut feature In Bruges has two hitmen cooling their heels in the eponymous city (Why hitmen? Because they’re cool. Duh!). He manages to create an atmosphere of suspended animation, the drifting snow a metaphor for the souls drifting within the city’s ancient walls, but the so-called souls themselves are basically Tarantino characters with just so much more wit and inventive profanity stitched into them, laced with a generous dose of Gaelic lilt for that, y’know, European flavor that Tarantino wishes he could effortlessly evoke (but can’t). A couple of gimmicky plot twists and extended gunfights later the city remains gorgeous but the characters are still cartoon sketches. With their heads blown apart.
Seven Psychopaths if anything is a step backwards: McDonagh switches out the gorgeous city of Bruges for the sunbaked flatlands of California (and nearby Joshua Tree National Park), seven psychopaths (on the presumed theory that more is better) for the two hitmen but instead of pretentious discussions of heaven, hell, damnation, redemption we have more Tarantino dialogue — funnier and more profane than ever — and Christopher Walken in Prophecy mode, a fallen angel with a pair of uncannily clear eyes. Which makes up for plenty but not everything.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (I’d written “Seven Billboards” before catching myself) is a more earnest stab at winning approval from the critical establishment, particularly in the United States, and right away a question pops to mind: Why a movie set here when his first few plays are set in Ireland where he grew up and presumably knows well? Has he spent enough time in Missouri (where the movie is set) or Asheville, North Carolina (where it was actually shot) to learn something of the people there?
I have to admit the movie starts strong, with the most dramatically fruitful premise of all his big screen efforts to date: Mildred (Frances McDormand) bullies advertising manager Red Welby (Caleb Landry Joes, so vividly in Twin Peaks: The Return) into renting her the aforementioned three moldering advertising boards on a small road near her house. She paints them a bright blood read and on the red in huge black block letters: “RAPED WHILE DYING”; “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”
Genius message; what gives the haiku its punch (aside from the blocky-black on blood-red) is the way the words has been broken into three parts, in ascending levels of accusation. “RAPED WHILE DYING” grabs your attention; “NO ARRESTS” sketches the nature of her complaint; “HOW COME” drives the charge home, directly naming the man being questioned.
The billboards’ power doesn’t owe so much from the creativity of the public shaming — okay they owe a lot but not everything — as from Mildred’s stonily understated anger, and McDormand’s seemingly effortless evocation of that anger. She’s past tears; you sense that she had used them up some time ago. She’s thought this carefully through but only up to a point (doesn’t have the money to keep the boards up past the rented month, for example) which suggests her mind has worried the problem furiously but can’t get past the need to prod the police into action — any kind of action.
As for the aforementioned police officer: Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) could be involved in Mildred’s daughter’s rape and murder and the subsequent coverup, only he probably isn’t; he’s actually been distracted by his own problems, particularly dying of cancer. Throwing in a terminal illness is daring conceit on McDonagh’s part, a possibly cheap ploy to complicate the audience’s reaction to this walking stereotype of the redneck police chief, only Harrelson’s performance is charming enough and weary enough (he matches McDormand’s weathered expression with his own stricken gaze) to turn the gimmick into dramatic gold, sketching a man who’s been excused out of any and all constraints and conventions to act the way he sees fit, and he sees fit to respond to Mildred in a simultaneously supportive yet passive-aggressive way.
Third leg of this hate triangle — hate and recrimination and regret — is Willoughby’s subordinate Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), easily the knottiest character in the picture. Dixon is an unrepentant racist — he’s been accused of beating a black man — and Rockwell plays this thuggish buffoon with courageous abandon; about the time when McDonagh starts to give him more sides than the three he’s shown so far (craven slacker, mama’s boy, abusive bully) is about the time when the movie goes off its rails — about the time when Mildred firebombs the police station.
Say what? Skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to see the picture!
McDonagh does well enough establishing each of the three characters and their respective sources of angst but with Mildred’s firebombing the coincidences and plot twists start piling on faster than your brain can come up with halfhearted excuses (certainly McDonagh doesn’t seem to feel like helping). Why would Mildred seek revenge for someone burning down her billboards when she didn’t pay for the extra month’s rent anyway? (And why is the arson such a shock to her — did she think the town would take her provocation lying down?) Why did Dixon pick that precise moment to start reading Willoughby’s letter? Why should Mildred get away with the firebombing so easily? (Her friend James — Peter Dinklage, criminally underused — provides a handy alibi, but she’s so obvious a suspect shouldn’t I be suspicious anyway?) Why, when Dixon gets back the results of the DNA testing, does he accept them so readily? (Shouldn’t he at least raise the possibility of a military coverup?) Why, when Mildred confesses to the firebombing, does Dixon accept her confession so readily? Third degree burns hurt, especially on the face — probably hurt even worse over a longer period of time than having one’s head blown apart, but, hey, what do I know?
And why should Dixon change at all? Knottiest question in the whole picture and I know it’s been worried up and down the internet by many a critic and blogger. Fans love the uncertainty and vagueness; nonfans accuse McDonagh of taking the gimmicky way out, complete with ambiguous ending; even more virulent nonfans condemn the movie for its implicit racism (Dixon beats up a black man and suffers no consequence; he suddenly decides to help a white woman and we’re supposed to applaud him). I think McDonagh tries for uncertainty but without rooting the twists in what we already know of his characters he ends up with Tarantino callowness — change for the sake of effect in effect (Mcdonagh’s cluelessness towards Dixon’s black victim doesn’t help). If, say, he were a John Boorman — another filmmaker who profoundly misunderstood the South — he could use his uniquely obsessive visual style to produce a Deliverance (a grossly unconvincing drama that is, at the same time, a great action film) only he has no unique obsessive style; the most he’s got, visually speaking, are the three billboards gleaming redly against the North Carolinian verdure. Pity, because that first half at least deserves a nod of recognition, if not respect.
MTRCB Rating: R-13