Austin Film Fest Review: THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI Is Angry, Hilarious & Profound
It all starts with a phrase.
Black Lives Matter. Lock Her Up. Me Too. Suddenly, individuals on both sides of an issue's aisle are coming out of the woodwork, expressing their thoughts and feelings regarding the social complexities of our day. Innocent People of Color are tired of being killed by cops without cause. Families of officers are sick of being singled out by casualties of hate crimes. Trump voters want to banish Hillary into oblivion (or, worse yet, actually have her criminally investigated). Hillary supporters would rather die than cast a ballot for that right wing pussy-grabbing pig. Victims of sexual assault are exhausted from being silenced for decades, while others still cast doubt on survivors' stories as a means to perpetuate their pre-existing belief in false martyrs. In 2017, rage is omnidirectional, and no side is ever right; at least by the other's approximation.
In Martin McDonagh's tragicomedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a cause actually begins with three short phrases. Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come, Chief Willoughby? Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is done waiting for answers when it comes to the sexual assault, murder and fiery desecration of her daughter Angela's body. The police department of Ebbing, Missouri - led by Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) - have hit a dead end in the case, and it doesn't look like there's going to be any progress soon. So, Mildred sells the tractor trailer her abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) used to drive, and pays for the titular advertisements just outside the town's limits, screaming these three slogans into a combined sentence. Her logic goes "the longer a case stays in the public eye, the better its chances of getting solved." Instead, she ignites a municipal firestorm the likes of which nobody could've imagined.
Originally a playwright (and unquestionably one of history's great dramatists), McDonagh wove multiple complex, humanist threads throughout works such as The Pillowman - a black comedy about an unsuccessful writer, whose works eerily mirror a series of child murders in a totalitarian dictatorship, where artists are executed by the police at will. Using that rather complex set-up, McDonagh juggles interrogations regarding family, religion, the nature of art, and creation in a time when its existence is not appreciated by those in power, all while injecting a singular blue comedic style and instances of shocking violence. It's a writerly thumbprint that's been carried over into his cinema, as movies like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths resemble filmic extensions of his stage obsessions.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the first film that actually feels like a direct approximation of one of McDonagh's plays. While certainly nowhere near totalitarian (in fact, it's probably closer to the American Midwest ideal), Ebbing is still overseen by a police force that's been accused in the past of "torturing niggers in custody". Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is the patrolman with the checkered history, whose own colleagues (such as Zeljko Ivanek's otherwise mild-mannered desk Sergeant) publicly side-eye him. Dixon deserves it, as he's a good ol' boy dumbass who enjoys wearing a badge because, if he didn't, he'd be just another drunk asshole who'd still bully people in the poolhall at night, only without the added backup of a police station. It's only because Willoughby's kept him under his wing that the dope's survived this long, and once those billboards get erected, he's a mad dog, looking for any excuse to lock up the folks (such as Caleb Landry Jones' dim local ad man, Red Welby) who enabled such badmouthing about his beloved profession.
Willoughby will allow no such intimidation to take place (once he finds out the ads are legal, of course), as the Chief actually kind of respects Mildred for such a brazen, bullheaded move. Woody Harrelson has always been great at remolding his trademark down home charm to fit every role, and Chief Willoughby practically seems like he was written for the brilliantly goofy actor. Willoughby is a wise, friendly servant of Ebbing who, like Mildred, is also frustrated with the lot God has suddenly bestowed him in life. Husband to a beautiful wife (Abbie Cornish) and father to two adorable daughters, the Chief's living out his last days, as pancreatic cancer eats away at his insides. Whatever Higher Power chose to snatch away Mildred's daughter via the hands of a rapist also decided that Bill's had enough of this solid existence, and is going to leave his better half a widow and children fatherless. However, that doesn't mean the accusations on those billboards are totally fair, and he pleads with the tough old boot to tear them down.
It's difficult to convey just how incredible each one of these central performances are, as the tone of McDonagh's scenes often turns from hilarity to heartbreak without warning. Three Billboards is certainly McDormand's movie, first and foremost, as she transforms the grieving mother into a single-minded instrument of righteous anger, persisting despite the protests of her ex and surviving son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges). But Harrelson provides a funny counterbalance, in that Willoughby is a man who wishes he could catch Angela's killer, but also understands sometimes cases just run cold, and it's going to take some random dickhead bragging about the violent sexual conquest in a bar some years from now for it to finally break. Willoughby also sees that Dixon has the potential to be a good cop, if he ever let go of the booze and hate that consumes him each day. Because as much as a chip on the shoulder can make a person motivated and unwavering in their convictions, it can also act as a blinder when it comes to others' humanity.
Yet as nuanced and captivating as McDormand and Harrelson are, Rockwell is the secret weapon of Three Billboards. Dixon is a character who could've easily been a one note drunk, racist monster, influenced by a truly weird relationship with his mother (It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia's Sandy Martin). Nevertheless, Rockwell guides Jason from town dope, to savage beast (who engages in the movie's most brutal act of violence at the mid-way point), to bizarre redemption story by the end, becoming an avatar for the movie's main theme: no person is beyond salvation. We may think we know everything there is to comprehending another's nature from first glance or the things they've done in the past, but those elements aren't all that define a human being. The future may not be bright, but there is always hope for change, even in ways we don't necessarily expect.
This all probably sounds pretty heavy on paper - and a good deal of Three Billboards certainly is - but McDonagh's third feature is also gut-bustingly funny, as the writer flexes his ear for irreverent, dirty dialogue to the absolute breaking point. Profane turns of phrase are tossed out ad nauseam, and Ebbing is populated by bit characters who are able to add legitimate hilarity and meaning with a just a few scenes of their own (Peter Dinklage's "town midget" with the hots for McDormand will break your heart with his last line). Cinematographer Ben Davis (Guardians of the Galaxy) does an amazing job painting this borough with mists in the morning and golden sunsets before nightfall, but also visually acknowledges that McDonagh's movie is a writing/acting showcase, and gets the hell out of the way, allowing these performers to do their jobs and deliver a fully realized estimation of Small Town, USA.
We now live in a world where one individual's broadcast - be it on Twitter, Facebook, or a town billboard - can alter the course of history forever. Suddenly, there's a full-fledged campaign, it's in the news, and real world repercussions are taking place because, without that single personal transmission, none of it could've been kickstarted. However, in those moments of activism, compassion for both sides can be lost in a roar of righteous indignation and calls for action, reducing what was once a human issue to nothing more than slogans and accusations. Anger is certainly a necessary fuel for change, but one cannot myopically block out the souls of those they think are responsible for whatever troubles they're currently raging against. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a funny, shocking, oddly sobering reminder that people should inform the process, not the other way around; and in his irreverence, Martin McDonagh has made the film that best encapsulates the often confusing era we currently exist in.