We get movies about people who have a child/spouse/loved one murdered all the time. It is the primary motivator for a revenge picture. It’s not hard to understand why. Revenge, even for the most liberal person, satisfies in a story context. You want the bad guy to get what’s coming to him. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not a revenge picture. The latest from writer/director Martin McDonagh instead tackles the intertwining of rage and grief when revenge, or even justice, is not on the table, as the perpetrator of the crime has not been identified. Can anything be satisfying after a life is unceremoniously taken?
The great Frances McDormand plays Mildred, the mother of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered seven months prior to when we meet her. The police investigation has gone cold due to a small amount of evidence which doesn’t strongly point to any person. In order to light a fire under the police, she rents out three billboards on a backroad calling out the police chief (Woody Harrelson) as to why no progress has been made on the case. This causes quite the stir in the town due to many finding it incredibly disrespectful and unnecessarily incendiary, not understanding why this woman in an emotionally dire situation would want some kind of closure for her to be able to live her life in a somewhat normal way.
Martin McDonagh excels at writing characters that he does not judge. The movie never goes out of its way to endorse or condemn Mildred for what she does, which even goes beyond just the billboards in some cases. You want to be on her side because who would not want this heinous crime to go unpunished? But getting to know Chief Willoughby, you believe he is trying everything he can to help Mildred but is unfortunately put in a bad spot because of a lack of information. They are both in stagnant places, wanting to concede to the other person but are unable to unless a new bit of evidence can surface, and that is an unlikely scenario after seven months of investigating.
Another character McDonagh does not judge, though he is a bit easier for us as an audience to judge, is Willoughby’s deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell). He is a racist, force first cop dealing with his own rage issues thanks to alcoholism and a constant fear of not being a strong man thanks to his mother, whom he still lives with. He is a fascinating individual with so many internal contradictions. You can see just how despicable he is but see his own want to become a better person and actually help those around him. Anyone besides McDonagh writing this man would turn him into a complete cartoon of evil, but in a story that only exists in murky, gray morality, I couldn’t think of anything more inauthentic.
You must be thinking to yourself at this point, “Wow. This sounds heavy and dour.” To some extent, it is. However, if you’ve seen In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, or any of McDonagh’s plays, you know there is always an undercurrent of dark humor, complete stupidity, and shocking, over the top remarks to make for quite a funny movie. McDonagh knows if we were to sit purely in a depressing morality exploration without a lot of answers, we would be itching to get out of our theater seats. Also, people are funny, and Three Billboards would bot be truthful not recognizing that. Yes, his dialogue snaps much more than how real people speak, but the intention behind it still rings true.
Harreslon, Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, and Zeljko Ivanek all come over from previous work with McDonagh, but his sensibility fits so in line with Frances McDormand that I would not be surprised if this working relationship continues to grow and flourish. She knows how to bite into his coarse, profane dialogue with the best of them and can dig deep into Mildred’s pain and anger that jumps off the screen. She’s always been a electric performer, even if a lot of her film roles don’t give her the opportunity to showcase it all. Now, if more people besides McDonagh and the Coens can give her some more meaty parts, the moviegoing public will be in for some grand times at the theater.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of those movies that you really like at the time, as I did, but I’m sure will only grow in appreciation the more you look back on it. I’m sure there are so many structurally beautiful things or funny lines I missed on a first viewing that will keep pulling me back to it again and again. Martin McDonagh has a way of doing that. My first exposure to him was a production of his play The Pillowman, which pulled be back to see it six more times. There is a lot of meat on the bone, and I’ve only partially digested it. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the movie, and my opinion of it has already grown. A movie with no easy solutions will constantly want you to try and reckon with it, and I will look forward to continue to do so.
Categories: New Releases