Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Right from the opening scenes, there is no messing about from writer-director-producer Martin McDonagh as he plunges us into the thick of his small town American setting.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has been living with the aftermath of her daughter’s murder for seven months now and wants to know why Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and the local police force are no nearer to solving it. Behind that stony, unsmiling face she is seething with a frustration that comes to the boil as she rents three billboards outside of town that read sequentially: RAPED WHILE DYING; AND STILL NO ARRESTS and HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
It’s uncomfortable for the cops and no mistake, but since I always enjoy seeing those in authority getting it stuck to them, I was initially on her side; especially since the musical cue as she approaches the rental company indicates an upright Wild West hero going to do battle.
And with Harrelson as the police chief, we just know that he’s going to be some sort of good ‘ol boy racist asshole, so what’s not to dislike about this guy, right?
Yeah, well… except that in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri things aren’t that simple. Willoughby isn’t a bad guy at all – in fact he is a decent family man who has sympathy with and a certain admiration for Mildred – and the lady in question is so full of hate and feelings of suppressed guilt that she is going to let nothing stop her. Even the fact that the Chief is dying of pancreatic cancer doesn’t cut any ice with her. ‘We’re all going to die’ is her attitude and she’s sticking to it, no matter what the ultimate consequences of her actions will be.
Some people take her side; but Willoughby is a popular town character and others don’t. She even gets a visit from her local priest, who gets short shrift from her in a memorable scene where she compares what she is doing to a Los Angeles law that was brought in to make all gang members culpable in criminal acts:
“Which got me thinking, Father, that whole type of situation is kinda like your Church boys, ain’t it? You’ve got your colours, you’ve got your clubhouse, your – for want of a better word – gang. And if you’re upstairs smoking a pipe and reading a bible while one of your fellow gang members is downstairs fucking an altar boy then, Father, just like the Crips, and just like the Bloods, you’re culpable. ‘Cos you joined the gang, man. And I don’t care if you never did shit or never saw shit. You joined the gang. You’re culpable. And when a person is culpable of altar boy-fucking or any kinda boy-fucking – I know you guys didn’t really narrow it down – then you kinda forfeit the right to come into my house and say anything to me on my life or my daughter or my billboards. So why don’t you just finish your tea there, Father, and get the fuck outta my kitchen.”
So we’re admiring Mildred’s guts and unwillingness to back down to anybody; but in that we’re ignoring where this is all going to lead. Because McDonagh’s script is one of the best in a while and the audience is not going to get off that lightly. We have in our minds during the first half-hour of this film what we think these characters are – but it’s not that simple. Nothing is straightforward here and the audience is going to be kept continually off-balance.
Driving Old Dixie Down
McDonagh seems to be specialising in comedy of the very blackest kind, from his brilliant debut in the morally challenging In Bruges, through The Guard* [* The Guard was actually written and directed by brother John Michael McDonagh – many thanks to eagle eyed contributor Patrick for pointing this out!] and on to the (for me) disappointing and seriously dodgy Seven Psychopaths; but in this fourth film he is really pushing the envelope. On paper, how the hell do you manage to have numerous laugh-out-loud moments in a film whose themes include murder, rape and suicide? That is one hell of a line to walk; and yet he does it — in the main — masterfully.
At first he is painting in the broadest of strokes: “So how’s it going in the nigger-torturing business”? Mildred asks the racist, violent and dim-as-a-broken-light-bulb Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who stutters that “It’s ‘Persons-of-Colour’ torturing business these days, if you want to know. And I didn’t torture nobody”.
And even Sherriff Willoughby dryly observes that if you removed every cop in America who had mildly racist views you would be left with about three; and they would hate fags.
Don’t go to this movie if you are one of the Perpetually Offended; it’s not for you. McDonagh even has Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion in Game of Thrones in it, basically so that he can make more jokes about midgets, as he did with In Bruges.
Mexicans get insulted as well; and he’s tough on dentists, which probably secretly pleased lots of people; but what the hell, it’s refreshing to see something that isn’t too bothered about political correctness. If the film has a flaw then it’s that most white characters are portrayed as borderline (to over-the-line) barking mad, while the black characters are shown as whatever passes for normal these days.
We have a superb cast here. I’ve watched everything that Frances McDormand has done since her brilliant first film in 1984, Blood Simple. In fact, Three Billboards has the feel of a Coen Brothers movie, right down to its use of music; but that’s because of her enormous presence (this may be the best she’s ever been – and that’s saying something –, even including Fargo); and is unfair to McDonagh, which I don’t mean to be. This is his baby, every step of the way.
Sam Rockwell is quite simply outstanding as the racist mummy’s-boy Dixon; like McDormand he is able to convey vulnerability just through his facial expressions. But even the smallest of roles are memorably etched. In particular watch out for Samara Weaving as the young girlfriend of Mildred’s wife-beating husband: she is a delight.
Some people are going to have a problem with the ending. Having been unable to stop thinking of this film since I saw it, I’ll come down and say that it is perfect and for me could never have ended otherwise. You’ll also leave the cinema purely haunted by Carter Burwell’s beautiful score.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri won four Golden Globes last week. And there’s the real surprise: an awards ceremony got it just about right for a change.