Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: McDormand Unchained

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

*** (out of 4)

WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

This year’s award for Most Misleading Movie Marketing Campaign goes to whoever was put in charge of publicizing Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. If you were just going by the trailer, you’d think you were in for an inspiring “social justice” movie about a sassy, badass woman (played by the redoubtable Frances McDormand no less) who takes on a group of racist, image-obsessed cops who don’t care about her daughter’s murder. Thanks to the apt insertion of a few images of burning buildings, fistfights, and defenestrations, moreover, McDonagh’s work almost comes off looking like an only slightly less flamboyant spin-off of Kill Bill.

The real Three Billboards is many things – but badass and inspiring certainly aren’t among them. Yes, Frances McDormand does play a tough-talking woman named Mildred; yes, she does take the cops to task over her daughter Angela’s unsolved rape and murder; and yes, a person does get unceremoniously defenestrated. But instead of being a fearless warrior you find yourself rooting for, Mildred turns out to be a vengeful loner who attacks the police in order to run from her own feelings of guilt. (When the last thing you said to your daughter was “I hope you get raped,” how else could you feel?) In addition, the police chief Mildred targets (played by Woody Harrelson) is hardly an image-obsessed racist; if anything, he’s a dedicated public servant who, aside from having done everything he could to solve Angela’s case, is also dying of cancer. And while Trailer Mildred looks set to obtain some kind of bloody vengeance, Movie Mildred never actually succeeds in tracking down Angela’s killers.

In reality, what McDonagh wants to accomplish in Billboards has less to do with Kill Bill than with In Bruges, his 2008 directorial debut. Strip it of its hilarious dialogue, after all, and Bruges is really about two people who can’t comprehend a world where all-expenses-paid vacations to Belgium and deaths of “f—ing six-year-olds” can peacefully coexist. The world of Billboards, it turns out, is defined by a similar kind of pervasive, irrational unfairness. Mildred gets put in jail for damaging a dentist’s fingernail, but a cop doesn’t receive any charges after throwing an innocent guy out a window. The same cop gets himself completely beaten up just so he can swipe a bit of a potential suspect’s DNA – only to find that the DNA doesn’t match. And although Mildred spends most of the movie devising ways to humiliate the cops, she knowingly picks one of them to be her travel buddy at the end of the film.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

In Billboards, then, McDonagh seeks to lay out a grimly absurdist view of modern society: a society where a string of bad luck is all it takes to push honest, hardworking people into the throes of all-consuming, anything-goes urges to destroy. Unfortunately, his attempts to impart this worldview are somewhat hampered by his script’s tonal inconsistency. At times, he wants us to grieve at the suffering his characters experience; the moment when he suddenly kills off an important character midway through the film is probably the most obvious example of this. Yet in other places, he adopts a dismissive, callously sarcastic attitude towards what happens to his characters – we’re not supposed to feel bad for the defenestrated guy, and even Angela’s gruesome death is treated as though it were merely the setup for a gag. McDonagh is good at being funny, and he’s also good at being dark: in Billboards, instead of working with each other, these two talents of his clash, to the point that they come close to canceling each other out.

Still, even if this film proves less satisfying than In Bruges, the reasons you still ought to see Billboards begin and end with Frances McDormand. From 1984’s Blood Simple to 1996’s Fargo to 2008’s Burn After Reading, McDormand has always had a knack for playing cheerily dogged women – characters whose simpering outward facades mask their remarkable, perhaps foolhardy inner resilience. Here, she does a complete 180 on the persona she’s so painstakingly created, playing a character whose resilience conduces not to constructive advancement but self-defeating annihilation. Her willingness to show us just how far down anger can take a good human being is both disquieting and refreshingly courageous. And in the end, it provides the movie with an emotional resonance that McDonagh’s direction simply can’t give on its own.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

***

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage

Running Time: 115 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.”

Produced by: Martin McDonagh, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin

Written and Directed by: Martin McDonagh