January 14th, 2018
A particularly popular film from the 2000s that has always seemed to slip out of my viewing schedules (I even owned it on Blu-ray for a few years) is In Bruges. From what I gather it’s a dark comedy from director Martin McDonagh, set in Bruges. Everyone raves about it. One day I might actually get around to seeing it (cue people messaging me that I REALLY need to see it).
However, a film from McDonagh that I have seen is Seven Psychopaths, which is far less revered, even disliked by some as being an uneven film. I can agree with that criticism but I loved it. Maybe it was the ridiculously strong cast (featuring one of my favourites Christopher Walken and an actor who seems to be unreasonably good in anything he does, Sam Rockwell) or maybe it was the offbeat style that entertained me so much.
So, it wasn’t with the overwhelming hype of an audience darling like In Bruges that sat in the passenger seat for my anticipation towards McDonagh’s new film, it was the thorough enjoyment I’d gotten out of Seven Psychopaths. I wasn’t expecting greatness, but something very strong, from his latest: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Hot off winning a slew of Golden Globes this month, now released over on this side of the world, Three Billboards is one of the staple movies of the 2018 awards season. I have a particular disdain for this trend in Hollywood to essentially sit on the best films that are deemed award worthy until the end of the year/beginning of the next, purely to campaign as hard as possible to attain those lucrative honours. To paraphrase Rush, and if you want to get technical, Neil Peart: “One likes to believe in the freedom of movies, but glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.” Of course the original line is “freedom of music” and I omitted the emphatic, Geddy Lee “yeah!” from the end for dramatic effect, but you get my point.
I hope, at least. I’m only half joking, as films like Three Billboards are hardly devout of integrity due to when and how they are released. The quality of storytelling and workmanship that goes into a film like this, to me, is pure art in motion, and uncompromised. It’s just the transparent act of ending up honouring the “best movies of the past year,” by way of mainly focusing on the best movies that have been specifically released in the past few months, that rankles me somewhat.
So, awards season ramblings aside, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Fucking hell, took long enough. The film (set in Missouri, if you can believe it) focuses on a single mother, Mildred (played by Frances McDormand) whose daughter was raped and murdered seven months earlier. As a way to combat her grief, but primarily to seek justice, Mildred rents out three abandoned billboards alongside the country road that curves it way past her house, emblazoning them with a stark message calling out the local police department on their lack of results in the investigation into her daughter’s death.
The head of the local police department, Sheriff Bill Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson), is the prime target in this quasi-smear campaign. Quasi in that the road that the billboards are placed along is no longer in regular use, but soon enough they draw not just the attention of the townspeople, but local media also. Another police officer, Jason Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell) takes perhaps an even greater offence at this act than Willoughby himself.
We’re introduced very quickly to the firm racism at play in the police department, mainly from Dixon, and the idea, expressed vocally by Mildred herself, that the police are more concerned with locking up black people than investigating a murder properly. From the get go this felt like a predictable setup, that the police were corrupt bigots, who maybe even had a hand in Mildred’s daughter’s death, or had turned a blind eye to it for some reason.
What I loved about the film was the way it surprised me in this regard. The police ultimately turn out to not have been negligent in the case, but the film also doesn’t paint them out to be great people because of this either. That’s what makes Three Billboards tick, its exploration of flawed people and their flawed choices. Even Mildred, firmly set on her exhilarating crusade for justice, who you root for so strongly, isn’t painted out to be perfect. McDormand’s performance is so exceptional that you can tell Mildred knows it too, and perhaps a version of that character oblivious to her own faults wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting.
One of the central themes that holds the entire story up is violence, and how we can find ourselves succumbing to its allure. Through anger, through fear. Is it right? Is it wrong? Are there only two answers? The film ends on an excruciatingly open ended note that deals with this very theme, and however you choose to imagine the conclusion to the story, is completely indicative of where you stand on this issue.
As vile as Sam Rockwell’s Dixon can be, including a dread filled sequence that I felt like a vice grip around my throat and a clamp on my stomach, I found his casually vicious mother to be an essential character to the story. She’s in the movie for maybe four to five minutes tops, but shows you exactly why he is the way he is. We’re all influenced by the people that raise us, and that can explain why we are the way we are, but does that excuse our behaviour if pushed to horrifying extremes?
Dixon might be the most interesting element of Three Billboards, a violent racist, to be sure, but an oh so very clearly misguided one. The movie doesn’t condemn him as much as it doesn’t excuse him. The way Rockwell plays him in such an uncaring way while still conveying a deep set naivety is really impressive. Harrelson’s Sheriff Willoughby also turned out to be much more complex than what appeared on the surface in the first act of the film. Despite his shortcomings, his character bizarrely served to be a champion of compassion in a story so void of it.
McDormand though, commands the screen, and the story, with her brash, foul mouthed and determined portrayal of Mildred. The way that the mystery of her daughter’s death played out was unexpected, and welcome, even if not the most satisfying in a traditional sense. I appreciate the classic, shades of grey approach that McDonagh has used in this film, and wish more filmmakers would adopt it. It’s hardly new, but it’s always refreshing as it’s never really been commonplace, at least in films with this much of a spotlight on them.
I really liked the look of the film too, especially the various ways in which the titular billboards were framed and captured throughout. Standing unused, eaten away by time and neglect on a misty, moody morning, or slathered in bold red, lit up at night like portraits of blood as a reminder to the police department of their failures. My only real gripe is that the violence becomes a little bold to the point of overtaking proceedings, and while it’s usually handled well, there was one instance where there were no consequences. I’m not sure anyone, let alone an adult in this day and age, would be able to walk up to a group of teenagers at the front of a high school and boot them in the crotch without hearing anything else about it.
At the same time I appreciate the levity that is injected into a film that at times is achingly intense. Especially when it comes to Mildred, whose humanity is absolutely coloured by humour, but we only (appropriately) see glimpses of it. Despite the funerally (if that’s not a word, it is now) serious tone of the film, you are allowed to laugh, and that’s quite a relief at times.
What really stood out to me about Three Billboards though, are the moments that hit you right in the gut. Many films have these moments, few have multiple. Raw, shocking beats that seem to almost completely envelop you into the mood and being of the character on screen. (The remainder of this paragraph could be considered a spoiler if you want to preserve the shock of the moment for yourself.) At one point Mildred remembers an argument she had with her daughter, who leaves in a tantrum, defiantly proclaiming “I hope I get raped!” as she storms out of the house. Mildred responds with an equally firey and petty “I hope you do get raped!” and we cut to present day Mildred standing in her daughter’s bedroom, all that’s left of her presence. It sounds bold and over the top writing it out, but the characters had been set up until this point to establish how crude and offhand the family act with each other. We know neither of the women meant what they said, but the fact that they did sends a shock wave of pain out of the screen to the viewer.
Grief, violence, anger, remorse, where does it all lead, and where does it all end? One of the most important scenes of the film to me see’s Red, the man Dixon savagely attacked, coming face to face with Dixon in the hospital. Red is visibly shaken to see his assaulter for the first time since the incident, and after a moment of reflection, he opts to bite down his anger and pain, and instead makes a gesture of kindness towards him. We all have a choice. Anger begets greater anger, and violence begets greater violence. Three Billboards is about the roads we all can take if we let anger fuel our choices, but also, refreshingly, the choices we can make fueled by love and understanding.
Bottom line, it’s loaded. And we need more of that.