Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/07/17 11:50:48
An unburied corpse, in ancient Greek tragedy, gave pause to the very gods themselves. It was the ultimate indignity, an affront to life as well as death, a refusal of humanity.This has something to do with Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a sort of Greek tragedy in modern garb. Here, the body, which we never see except fleetingly in police photos, is that of the teenage daughter of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who works in the town gift shop. Mildred’s daughter was interrupted rather violently almost a year ago; in response, Mildred has rented three billboards and uses them to frame an accusation. The billboards — posted within about a football field’s length of each other, like three-quarters of a grim parody of a Burma-Shave sequential ad — read as follows: “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
That would be Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who has done everything he can to find the rapist and murderer of young Angela Hayes. Sometimes, he says at one point, you don’t catch a break. That’s not nearly good enough for Mildred, who may as well be aiming her query at God. “The heaven shall reveal his iniquity,” the book of Job tells us, “and the earth shall rise up against him” — in the form of billboards, presumably. Three Billboards proceeds in the grand classical tradition of tragedy, though it’s not without humor, this being a movie by the writer/director of the madly amusing crime films In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). This is something of a crime film, too, though the major crimes take place before and (possibly) after the narrative’s reach.
Whodunit? Maybe God — unless, of course, “there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other,” muses Mildred. She flirts with nihilism, but it doesn’t flirt back, and soon she’s swinging into action again, driven forward by rage and grief, hardly even noticing her living son. Like many Greek-tragedy heroines, Mildred is both a great woman and a monster. Her quarrel with Chief Willoughby is really a quarrel with death and with life, and McDormand creates a façade of stoic strength she allows to develop tiny cracks so we can see the ungovernable pain beneath.
Three Billboards deals in the, let’s say, archetypal — the drunk, racist mama’s boy who ultimately shapes up to be a fine detective and avenger (Sam Rockwell, mesmerizingly askew as always); the cheesy, near-pedophiliac ex-husband (John Hawkes). Peter Dinklage shows up — McDonagh must love dwarves and love it when clueless idiots call them midgets, because he told that joke in In Bruges and tells it again here, only with Peter Dinklage. By now such things in McDonagh’s work impress us as signatures, pet themes, preoccupations we can only guess at. McDonagh had been building a rep as the next bad boy of crime cinema (cf. Tarantino, Danny Boyle, etc.), as conversant with gore as with wit. But this film feels like a step forward, or at least a step sideways.
When a character here opts for suicide, McDonagh attends to it with empathy, but also doesn’t let us forget the deceased leaves behind a grieving spouse and two children. A good chunk of Three Billboards is about redemption and how people are stubbornly complex, able to be many things at once. A man can be good and noble and still be prideful in ways that deprive children of a father. A man can be a racist twerp and still (rather literally) come through a baptism of fire and find himself more reflective and intuitive. A woman can be full of unappeasable fury and still, in telling little moments, pop back into community and humanity when faced with another’s agony.How we’re supposed to feel about the ambiguous ending depends, I think, on what mood we’re in — whether we want to see it as proof of evil helplessly regenerating itself or proof that even the most monomaniacal and violent can grow and change. Either mood is, accidentally I’m sure, very much of this harrowed and degraded moment.
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