"You're So Pretty. But She's Still Dead."
A line from Seven Psychopaths might be a good preamble for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."
A timely film about the dangers of acting without filters, Martin McDonagh's new film (after In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) shows what can happen when the thirst for revenge overruns your life: it escalates, creates consequences, and expands in ever-increasing ripples of cause and effect. You want revenge? Don't stop at digging two graves.
Three Billboards defies pigeon-holing and genre-fication. It's too commonplace to be a thriller. It's too intense to be a drama. It's too dark to be a comedy. But it's all of those things at one time (the comedy being more of the Black-Irish variety). It is too sunny and rural to be a noir, but it does share one quality with that type of film: there is no merciful God in evidence in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Driving on the seldom-used road by her house, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) sees three billboards in disrepair that haven't been used in decades. She stops, backs up and takes in all three of them and the impact they'd have driving past them—1...2...3. And something sparks her. She takes five thousand in cash and strides into the local marketing agency and announces she wants to rent those billboards. After going what can't be on the signs ("Well, I think I'll be alright then" she says), she signs the contract and soon, the billboards are up, and their message is provocative.
The first person to see them is Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a not-too-competent law officer, who drives by one night and is shocked, angered and his first reaction is to call the Ebbing chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) as the billboards are a direct challenge to him. The chief is trying to have dinner with his family and Dixon's a hot-head that, for some reason, Willoughby keeps on the force, but his a cooler head and not nearly as reactionary. He'll wait and talk to Mildred in the morning.
News of the billboards has now spread throughout Ebbing and the subject is divisive. The chief has a lot of friends and Mildred has made a few enemies because of them. But a visit from the Chief to try and mollify the situation does help things any much. The Chief wants the billboards down, but he understands the situation; it's been seven months since Mildred's daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was raped and murdered, her body burned in the very area of the billboards, and, as they accuse, no arrests have been made in the case. Angela is dead and buried, but Mildred and her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) have been living with the consequences and their own consciences ever since. Mildred's abusive husband (John Hawkes) has moved out and taken up with a 19 year old intern at the zoo (Samara Weaving).
The Chief is empathetic to Mildred—he has been trying to solve the case and it has been frustrating that there is no forensic evidence to follow up on and tells her that, eventually—in these cases—someone will say something out of turn, someone will slip up, some code of silence will be broken and then, they can act. And as aggrieved as he is about events, he still thinks the billboards are unnecessary. "I don't think those billboards are very fair," he says. Mildred has none of it. "The time it took you to get out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl's probably out there being butchered." Even telling her that he has cancer doesn't soften her resolve or her frustration. The billboards will stay, come what will.
Dixon is pissed. He wants something done. But, he's under a bureaucratic cloud for beating up an African-American while in custody. He's the loudest and crudest of the local constabulary and has very little anger-management skills—something he probably learned from his mother (Sandy Martin), with whom he still lives. Willoughby can barely contain him during a visit to the ad office—across from the police station—to pressure them to take the signs down, but don't press the point when they realize that they really have no justification within the law to do it. Willoughby, however, starts to re-examine the evidence and crime scene to see if there is something—anything—he might have missed in the initial investigation.
Confrontations with Dixon (at a bar where he regularly drinks himself into a stupor) and some of the locals causes Mildred to be arrested, but she remains committed to keeping the signs up and the pressure on. Neither side is going to budge, and it's only Willoughby's keeping things from escalating that keeps the town from exploding or Dixon from doing something stupid...or more stupid than is typical for him.
It is that constant, simmering feel of menace that makes Three Billboards a thriller. It is the unblinking directness of everybody's words and actions (and their inability to hedge anything) that makes it funny. It is the utter helplessness and casual brutality that makes it a noir. You begin to wonder if anybody has a shred of decency in the whole thing, but they're inhabiting an indecent uncaring world and the posturing, the implied threats, the "scorched Earth" unequivocation, and the tit-for-tat intensification of hostilities has to come to a head. Before the movie's over, things will flare up to a combustible heat, leaving behind devastation in its wake, if not entirely due to the actions/reactions taken, even if, in the circle outside the fire, it's perceived to be.
Three Billboards is a great movie and, dare I say it, a sign of our times. It is tough—it is not for the blue-hairs and the easily offended (because there is something to offend just about everybody). It has the huevos to to put a lie to the phrase "profound rage." There is nothing "profound" about it (perhaps another word should be found to be paired with it, lest there be any confusion), certainly not in this context. A terrible wrong committed by arrogance has occurred, in the quest for vengeance it gets compounded, and then compounded and then compounded again. We as a people (urged on by simplistic morality plays, such as can be found at the movies) are spoon-fed viscerally satisfying revenge-scenarios that make us think such a thing is commonplace and normal in a philosophy that is based on "an eye for an eye." If we could stop with just an eye, maybe it could work, but the instinct is escalate and with no end in our cyclopean sight.
The performances in this things are brilliant. McDormand is totally unafraid to make her Mildred ugly, both in spirit and face. Keeping her chin up has solidified it to granite, and cocked it forward with a invitation to, go ahead, take a swipe at it...at your peril. A monologue planting flowers near the billboards where her daughter was murdered reveals a person so consumed by grief and guilt and anger that nothing in this world, no miracle, could pull her out of her single-minded need to see somebody pay...and it can be anyone, so far as she's concerned. Thought has left the building. The un-nuanced need for revenge has replaced it. Interestingly, an inspiration for her performance came from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Every morning, McDormand sat in her make-up chair staring at pictures of John Wayne, while Rockwell's mirror was covered by pictures of Lee Marvin...and Barney Fife (from "The Andy Griffith Show"). Apt.
I've listened to some hand-wringing on public radio about the movie being insensitive to some issues—like spousal abuse and race-baiting—and being caustic in its humor, which is mostly ironic in nature (folks don't know what they're saying is innately absurd) and that "there is no one to root for." Well, no shit, Sherlock. This isn't a super-hero movie (which, by the way, are based on the notion of crowd-pleasing revenge at any costs). This is about people so burning with anger and self-righteousness that they believe they can do anything, within or without the borders of lawfulness or decency, in the pursuit of their personal cause, effects be damned. We're seeing a lot of that in the world today—letting the world burn because the "cause" is right, without the foresight to see what might be the consequence. If anything, the movie is closer to the "Incredible Mess" version of comedy, where people just dig themselves a deeper hole for themselves without the perspective to see that things are getting more dire the harder they pursue it. In that realm, there is very little to distinguish between comedy and tragedy.
So it goes. Until we can find something better.