Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriReviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 11/17/17 11:00:00
“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt,” wrote American humorist Erma Bombeck. Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) obliterates that line with his darkly funny and tragically sad third film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the story of a woman who has yet to overcome stage two of grief —anger— after the brutal rape and murder of her daughter.Frances McDormand, in her most ferocious role yet, plays Mildred Hayes, the recently divorced mother who takes matters on her own hands after local police fail to solve the case. As the film opens, Mildred is driving on the outskirts of the titular town when she stumbles onto three billboards that haven’t been used since 1986. Gnawing at her fingernail, her face a beacon of righteous anger, she concocts a plan that will put her at odds with the townspeople. She rents those three billboards from the local advertising agency, has them painted in red, and in black lettering splits the following message in three: “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests,” “How Come Chief Willoughby?” Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is the beloved chief of police who spearheaded the investigation before it grew cold.
He is alerted to the billboard’s existence by Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist cop with serious anger management issues who recently got scot-free from a charge involving the torture and abuse of a local African-American man. The billboards also attract attention of a local television station and soon become the talk of the town and not in a good way. Not only is Dixon outraged by her actions —he worships the ground Willoughby walks on— but so are her neighbors, her son Robbie’s (Lucas Hedges) classmates and even the local Catholic priest who gets an earful from Mildred in one of the film’s best speeches (and “Three Billboards…” is full of them). Mildred won’t give up, even though she knows Willoughby suffers from terminal cancer. She is determined to get answers, to bring the culprits to justice and no one will stand in her way, not her abusive ex-husband (now dating a 19-year old), Officer Dixon or Robbie’s classmates.
McDonagh is interested as much in small town dynamics as the raw emotions that drive its inhabitants. He devotes an equal amount of screen time to Willoughby and Dixon, to their foibles, their families, as he does Mildred, even though she is the motor that drives this film to its open-ended conclusion. When the story reaches a pivotal and unexpected point, we fully understand the consequences of Mildred’s actions as seen in one of the film’s bravura moments: a long tracking shot involving Dixon and the reprehensible, impulsively brutal act he commits. If it wasn’t clear from the first frame that McDonagh was not going to play nice with narrative convention, with these two scenes —and I am being deliberately vague about them as to give nothing away— McDonagh makes clearly that all bets are off. “Hate never solves anything,” one character says in the film. But its power is devastating.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is so much more than about the effects of pain, grief and anger. It is also about the power of words. Words that become weapons, words that are blurted spontaneously and words that soothe. Words that characters would like to take back, like those Mildred spat at her daughter after an argument the last time she saw her alive: “I hope you get raped, too.” Words like the ones left behind by a key character in three letters to family and colleagues. The snap, crackle and pop of McDonagh’s dialogue in his three films has been compared to Quentin Tarantino’s. But while Tarantino loves to hear himself speak in his dialogue, McDonagh, as many a great Irish writer before him, knows that each word and how you express them carries its own weight. Words can hurt and they can heal.
These are words and characters that actors like the ones in this film relish. Frances McDormand delivers a tour-de-force, a performance so raw that it threatens to set the screen on fire. Her Mildred is a woman you do not want to mess with, her glare as devastating as her words. There are moments when McDormand hints at the possibility of her character transcending her grief, but her need for resolution, for closure, is far too strong. It’s easy to take Woody Harrelson’s brilliance for granted, especially in a year full of solid performances. As Chief Willoughby he shines as the one decent human being in the community who still feels empathy towards Mildred and wishes he could do more for her. Sam Rockwell is another actor one can easily take for granted, especially after having played so many doofuses on film. Here he delivers the performance of a lifetime, one endowed with so many nuances. Dixon is not exactly a villainous figure, but he is most definitely one shaped by his environment. The film is really as much about his journey towards some sort of redemption as much as Mildred’s, with Chief Willoughby as the glue that holds this town, and these two opposites, together.“Three Billboards” is ferociously uncompromising. McDonagh wisely denies us any sense of closure in the traditional narrative sense of the word because life doesn’t work that way, especially when your screams for justice are not heard by the law nor by whatever divine entity you might believe in. What McDonagh offers instead is a rather idiosyncratic yet empathetic view of human nature, one were wounded souls find, in the end, some comfort and even satisfaction. It’s a movie that will linger in your memory weeks after having seen it.
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