Relying on a wonderful cast, McDonagh creates a film full of compassion about lost characters struggling to find meaning for their wrecked existences

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Mar­tin Mc­Don­agh. Star­ring Frances Mc­Dor­mand, Woody Har­rel­son, Sam Rock­well, John Hawkes, Pe­ter Din­klage, Ab­bie Cor­nish, Caleb Landry Jones, Ker­ry Con­don, Dar­rell Britt-Gib­son, Lu­cas Hedges, Željko Ivanek, Aman­da War­ren, Kathryn New­ton, Sama­ra Weav­ing and Clarke Peters.

Manichaeism is such an easy thing to re­sort to when you make a film. Ever since the old days of Hol­ly­wood and the con­sol­i­da­tion of gen­res in Cin­e­ma, the most ba­sic trick in the book is to tell sto­ries about good he­roes fight­ing evil vil­lains as if the world is es­sen­tial­ly di­vid­ed be­tween these two groups of peo­ple. This, of course, has been main­ly done for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, in or­der to sim­pli­fy mat­ters and de­per­son­al­ize an­tag­o­nists, but it doesn’t mean you can­not find au­thors who un­der­stand that there is a huge grey area in be­tween — al­though even to­day we see lazy writ­ers and di­rec­tors who give in to this kind of one-di­men­sion­al du­al­ism, quick­ly iden­ti­fy­ing the En­e­my and bare­ly giv­ing them the chance to be any­thing more than just plain evil.

It is for rea­sons such as those that I am al­ways gen­uine­ly sur­prised when I en­counter a film so full of char­ac­ter nu­ances like Three Bill­boards Out­side Ebbing, Mis­souri, in which you can find abu­sive ex-hus­bands and racist cops that are more hu­man than prob­a­bly all John Wayne’s char­ac­ters com­bined. Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Mar­tin Mc­Don­agh (In Bruges, Sev­en Psy­chopaths), it tells the sto­ry of Mil­dred Hayes (Frances Mc­Dor­mand), who af­ter sev­er­al months and no cul­prit found in her daughter’s bru­tal mur­der case, puts up three bill­boards out­side her town of Ebbing, Mis­souri to pub­licly ac­cuse Sher­iff William Willough­by (Woody Har­rel­son) of not do­ing any­thing to catch the killer — a move that is seen by most peo­ple in town as a tremen­dous injustice.

Willough­by is loved by every­one and his fel­low cops, in­clud­ing the im­ma­ture and vi­o­lent Ja­son Dixon (Sam Rock­well), who is known for tor­tur­ing black peo­ple — “per­sons of col­or-tor­tur­ing,” as the id­iot says. What those char­ac­ters have in com­mon is how tor­tured they are. Willough­by, for in­stance, is a tough man who wants to hide his vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and the trag­ic fact that he is dy­ing, even though every­one in town knows. Har­rel­son does a fan­tas­tic job shap­ing a flawed but good char­ac­ter who may be le­nient with the racism among cops and yet is ab­solute­ly sen­si­ble when enu­mer­at­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion. We can see tor­ment and love in his eyes, and it takes a great ac­tor to make “you lazy bitch” sound so affectionate.

Mil­dred, in turn, is an em­bit­tered woman who has man­aged to live through an abu­sive mar­riage and is now do­ing what­ev­er she can to hold her­self to­geth­er af­ter an aw­ful tragedy. She tries not to care about what peo­ple think of her (she even as­saults some kids with­out a sec­ond thought), and Mc­Dor­mand shines by let­ting us see Mildred’s heart be­neath so much re­sent­ment, like in a beau­ti­ful scene in which she opens up to a pass­ing deer. While we un­der­stand Mil­dred from the way her son and ex-hus­band speak of her (usu­al­ly as a “cunt”), we learn that even her daugh­ter want­ed to move in with her fa­ther to get away from her. It is not the mur­der that shaped Mil­dred to be this way, she was al­ready like that be­fore, dry and broken.

And if her ex-hus­band Char­lie (John Hawkes, ex­cel­lent) sur­pris­es us with a shock­ing mo­ment of ten­der­ness to­wards her, Dixon is the most fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter in the en­tire film, a sim­ple-mind­ed and lost man who car­ries a world of anger in­side him with­out re­al­iz­ing why — and Rock­well de­serves a lot of praise for mak­ing us pity a char­ac­ter who could have been eas­i­ly made into an odi­ous crea­ture. Dixon’s vi­o­lent ex­plo­sion of hate (shot in a mag­nif­i­cent long take) comes from a place of loss, pain, frus­tra­tion, and a des­per­ate need to blame some­one — and I re­al­ly doubt we will see this year an­oth­er scene so full of sor­row and com­pas­sion like the one that takes place be­tween Dixon and an­oth­er char­ac­ter in a hos­pi­tal room.

Ben­e­fit­ing from an evoca­tive West­ern-like score by Carter Bur­well (Far­go, No Coun­try for Old Men), Three Bill­boards Out­side Ebbing, Mis­souri de­con­structs genre con­ven­tions (think of the Coen broth­ers) and finds a per­fect tonal bal­ance be­tween hu­mor and dra­ma, with mo­ments rang­ing from snap­py (like Mildred’s fe­ro­cious mono­logue about cul­pa­bil­i­ty) to bizarre (Mil­dred drilling a hole into someone’s thumb­nail) or sur­re­al (like when Charlie’s 19-year-old girl­friend in­ter­rupts a fight to talk about a job at the zoo). The di­a­logue, in fact, reach­es many times the point of non­sen­si­cal, with hi­lar­i­ous lines such as “No­body cares about den­tists” and zany dis­cus­sions like Dixon de­mand­ing an ex­pla­na­tion from the men who erect the billboards.

But while Mc­Don­agh seems to be hav­ing a lot of fun with those off­beat con­ver­sa­tions about the “im­por­tance of Eng­lish” (“un­less you’re Mex­i­can”) or an elu­sive “sandy coun­try,” it is clear that he is more in­ter­est­ed in telling a sin­cere sto­ry about love and how es­sen­tial it is in a world full of hate. There is one scene that il­lus­trates that quite well, when Mil­dred and Willough­by in­dulge in a bit­ter ex­change of barbs and an in­ci­dent com­plete­ly changes the tone of the con­ver­sa­tion, mak­ing it clear for us that these are good peo­ple whose anger comes from ugly cir­cum­stances. And that is why a cer­tain de­ci­sion in the end re­veals so much about these char­ac­ters, who need to find a mean­ing for their lost lives with­out any con­vic­tion about where they are going.


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