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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three billboards with bold black letters in and an attention-grabbing orange field.  These the work of grieving mother Mildred Hayes, goading local Sheriff Bill Willoughby and his police force to show more initiative in solving the rape and murder of her daughter seven months earlier.

 Three films now for Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, each a kind of blazing billboard in its own right, full of provocation, contrivance, violence, heart and amusement.  Yes, all of that.  Audiences and critics have responded much more enthusiastically to the latest provocation of Mr. McDonagh than most of the residents of the fictional Ebbing, Missouri to those billboards of Mildred.  And yet, skepticism of the film seems even more justified than the disapproval of Ebbing for Mildred's roadside gesture; which is to say - what's the point? 

Accomplished both as a playwright and a filmmaker, Mr. McDonagh is, by his own acknowledgement, more comfortable in the role of the latter.  Much as his plays are full of their own violence and provocation, theater, he lamented in a 2015 interview, " never going to be edgy in the way I want it to be."  Based on his body of work thus far, it seems clear the the edginess for which McDonagh hankers is not really a bold examination ideas.

When the aggrieved Mildred rents  the long-dormant billboards near her home outside Ebbing,  seemingly bold ideas are put forth and and additional violence (beyond that done to her daughter) ensues.  The message of the billboards unfolds Burma-Shave-style over the three roadside cavases:  "RAPED WHILE DYING...AND STILL NO ARRESTS?...HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY." Mildred, not one to shy from confrontation, ups the ante when talking about the local police to a reporter:  "It seems to me the police force is too busy torturing black folks to solve actual crime." Subsequently, when an understandably concerned police chief visits Mildred, she favors him with "The time it took you to get out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl's probably out there being butchered right now."

McDonagh, like his main character, betrays no diffidence when it comes to incendiary situations.  Placed before  us in "Three Billboards," we have  the aftermath of great violence (and more to come), racism, police authority run amok and a mother bent not only on justice but possibly blind revenge.  In the figure of Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell and all his sharp edges), the member of the Ebbing Police Department most likely to torture people of color or anyone whom  he happens to find disagreeable, we have a kind of awkward, chafing American male id, bristling with unaccountable anger.  So much potential substance in "Three Billboards," and yet so little interest or ability to see it through.

One can certainly see why an actor might be thrilled to get a hold of one of McDonagh's scripts.  His principals are asked to do a lot, allowed space to express quite a lot.  There's  usually much more fun, more challenge to be enjoyed in being bad on screen than good.  Obvious enough.  The problem is that these human fireworks frequently don't make sense, much as they do temporarily grab one's attention on their bright and crackling arcs. 

Much as McDonagh's last two  films (including 2012's Seven Psychopaths) do not begin to approach the originality and deft balancing act that was his debut film, In Bruges, there is a kind of progress at work in "Three Billboards."  For the first time in McDonagh's work there is a woman front and center.  In Bruges offered us only a fairly interesting bed & breakfast host, as well as a drug dealer with a heart of gold.  The only female psychopath given screen time amid the massive sophomore slump that followed in Seven Psychopaths was seen briefly in flashback.  But beautifully cast as the formidable Mildred Hayes is Frances McDormand.

We first see Mildred driving on a quiet stretch of road, hair down and casually clad in a light dress. As she takes notice of the disused billboards she has been passing for years, inspiration strikes.  When next seen in the office of a local ad company, Mildred is dressed for business in coveralls with hair pulled back behind a broad bandana, looking not so much Rosie the Riveter as Rosie the Avenger.

Ms. McDormand is just the woman for the job.  Unfortunately, as was the case with another much-lauded role for the actor, that of the pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo, the job description is more than a little vague.  McDormand is asked to create a character out of a few primary emotions - rage, grief, an abiding cantankerousness and occasional remorse - like motley bits fabric pinned to a clotheir's mannequin.  She does her level best - and she's as absorbing in a given moment as ever - to animate what she's given, but it's hard to care about something or someone so patched together for mere effect.

The same can be said for Officer Dixon.  He's the sort of guy when encountered in a bar might either hug you or punch you, but you're pretty sure it'll be the latter.  The behavior of this man is all too real, all too familiar.  The world roils with these angry men and America provides legions in its own disturbing variations.  But the writer/director is only interested in the flashes of violence and contrasting pathos of such guys who don't normally know what to do with their emotions.  There's certainly no sense of where the violence is coming from, nor even a realistic character in which the extremes make sense.  

There's nothing wrong with trying to have a full sense of these characters, these man entrusted with this high profile job, a job with so much potential for things to go so very awry, due to circumstance, their own shortcomings, or both.  But like his Officer Dixon, McDonagh gives us only violence or awkward embraces, not much insight in between.  Chief Willoughby, we find out, charmingly swears in front of his angelic children, is very happily married to a beautiful wife, and...oh yeah, he's dying.  We are made privy to an extended idyll which is the Chief's last day with his family before he kills himself to spare them his unpleasant and inevitable decline.

Woody Harrelson's voiceoover narrates a letter to his shocked wife, nobly enumerating the reasons for his bold act.  We also hear him later in letters to Mildred and Officer Dixon.  As for the latter, he tells his underling that he believes him to be a good man who's been soured by a run of bad luck.  Again, nothing wrong with trying to understand these guys, but there's a simple mindedness and even detachment from reality here that makes something like Crash (and its own troubled cop played by Matt Dillon) seem subtle by comparison.  And the chronic violence and misbehavior of police officers, particularly as it lands on people of color, is a bigger problem then some guys in badges going through a tough time. 

For all its seeming verbal phosphorescence, for all the dark humor for which it has been lauded, "Three Billbaords" only rarely registers something more substantial than the thrusts of a shock value comedian.  Perhaps the strongest reaction of the two audiences among which I've seen the film is to a line in a restaurant encounter between Mildred and her abusive (domestic violence, like virtually every other substantial issue in the story, is allowed to briefly flare for dramatic effect and then is tidily boxed up like it's nothing more than a prop) ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes).  Charlie, whom we had earlier seen with his fingers pressed tight around Mildred's throat after an argument, admonishes his ex-wife, quoting his decidedly younger girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving), "Violence begets more violence."  Mildred's date, James (Peter Dinklage) responds, "Penelope said begets?"  It's very funny, a very effective line.  But really, it's McDonagh having set up a simple, one-dimensional female character and then knocked her down like a bowling pin.   

The film's sharpest stab is perhaps a parry offered by Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), who had rented the billboards to Mildred, drawing the ire of the prone to violence Officer Dixon.  There's a bizarre barroom exchange between the two that is almost weird enough to have some beer-soaked versimilitude.  Officer Dixon, we are surprised to observe,  decides to explain to Red that in Cuba, homosexuals are openly persecuted.

"Do you know what they do to faggots down in Cuba, Welby?"

"Wow, that's left field....No, what do they do to faggots down in Cuba, Dixon?"

"They kill 'em!  Which it might surprise to learn I am against."

"I'm not sure if they do kill faggots down in Cuba, Dixon.  I know Cuba's human rights record is pretty deplorable when it comes to homosexuality, but killing 'em?  Are you sure you ain't thinking of Wyoming?"

Now that's funny, the sharp, sharp edge of perfect irony, cutting also deep into the the heart of an American truth.  It's reminiscent of what might be the only worthwhile scrap from Seven Psychopaths.   There's an exchange between Sam Rockwell and Colin Farrel in which the former, an eager if deranged puppy nipping at heels of the hard-drinking screenwriter, Marti, played by Farrel, tries to give him a hard time, explaining that such a penchant for drink is the legacy of the Irish:  "The Spanish have got bullfighting, the French have got cheese and the Irish have got alcoholism," he says.  "And what do Americans have?,  Marti asks.  "Tolerance,"the Rockwell character deadpans. 

Without stretching too far, one could argue that "Three Billboards," even with all it's seeming appeals to liberalism, is actually a conservative piece of work, at least in terms of the woeful status quo of American society.  There's a reassurance about law enforcement - even if not quite the dangerous tendency toward sanctification of the police that has occurred post-9/11 - that is out of place here.

There's also in "Three Billbaords" a kind of savoring of vigilantism.  Laugh, if you want at Mildred kneeing two uncooperative high school kids in the groin in succession  - one a boy, one a girl; he's quite enlightened, this McDonagh.  But more than a woman understandably distraught, Mildred strikes out like a wounded child in her pain, with no conception of repercussions.  McDonagh tries to give Mildred's own disregard of the law and the well being of others the air of a holy war.  He's actually done no more than give us a poorly drawn character who's no more than a tool for the screenwriter's bad instincts.  And he's wasted a typically committed performance from Frances McDormand. 

Ultimately, Mildred decides to join the redeemed Officer Dixon in hunting down the man both had thought might be the long-sought villain who raped and killed Mildred's daughter.  Even when the hard-won forensic evidence exonerates the admittedly menacing drifter of the crime in question, the unlikely desperadoes decide to go after him anyway.  No so unlike American foreign policy of the past 15 years or so; we're pretty sure you did something bad or are going to eventually, so we're going to take this big gun and fire first.  

 "Three Blllboards" gives us all of that dubious material and an interest in the marginalization and mistreatment of people of color that goes about as far as making the white people in the story (and in the audience) feel righteous.  Exploitation would be another way of stating the matter.  Mildred's co-worker in a souvenir shop, Denise (Amanda Warren) is present in the story mainly to offer a kind of "you go girl" to Mildred's effort to rattle the cage of the local police and later be jailed when Officer Dixon decides to get at Mildred through her friend.  Darrell Britt-Gibson is Jerome, significantly playing a role that involves pasting Mildred's provocations on those billboards.  Veteran actor Clarke Peters gets a few more lines as the African American chief chosen to replace Chief Willoughby after his suicide, his presence perhaps the least probable plot contrivance in a film full of them.  

    McDonagh's flirting with race issues is consistent with the social shortcuts in his execrable Seven Psychopaths.  The fact that two of the psychopaths,  Hans and Zachariah, have African American partners seems a case of throwing the races together, both for a kind of unlikely bonhomie and the appearance that something more bold and real is actually happening.   It's as unlikely as the Brendan Gleason character having had an African American wife in In Bruges, murdered many years previous to the action of the film.   That phantom person of color appears briefly in the story so the Gleason character can chastise a drug-addled little person for expounding on a race war to come.

Amanda Waren
Adrift within their characters as written and embarking on a road trip to kill a man who clearly was not involved in the grisly rape and murder driving the story in "Three Billboards," the avengers acknowledge that they may be vigilantes with flagging interest in their vague reckoning. They seem rebels without cause or clue, whether from inadequate justice or just an indifferent universe.  Mildred wryly says that they'll decide whether or not to follow through on the planned murder when they get there. 

 This final twist of plot is a relief which allows the audience to feel  better about these troubled souls, themselves and the whole enterprise of the film.  However, to really consider all that transpires before the unlikely road trip bonhomie between Mildred and Officer Dixon, you might think that the audacious Mr. McDonagh has lost the courage of his convictions.  Or perhaps there never really was any conviction from the start.  It's a wild ride in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but we, like the well-armed roatrippers,  are on a road to nowhere.  



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