Movie review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh offers an ode to the rustbelt with his story of grief and loss in the fictional town of Ebbing, where the American Dream rolled out with the tide and left a hole six feet deep to bury hope
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Running time: 1hr 55 mins
By Katherine Monk
It’s not real. But it could be. And therein lies the terror at the very heart of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Playwright and film director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) drives a bulldozer through the American heartland, and digs up the decomposed remains of innocence and optimism.
The social metaphor is as bold as the title suggests, but the drama is painted in muted, human tones and detailed strokes of pain. It’s a technicolor tragedy that centres around the unsolved murder of a young woman, yet McDonagh finds a way to make this whole ugly endeavour light enough to endure through humour.
It’s the dark kind of levity that tends to accompany characters in crisis. People do surprisingly odd things when they are grieving and groping around in the cellar of personal suffering, and Mildred (Frances McDormand) is prime example.
Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered — mercifully, before the film opens. Mildred wants justice for her child, but the case has grown cold. The police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has no leads and his deputy (Sam Rockwell) is a hillbilly without any respect for procedure.
Mildred is at a loss, but in the opening frames of the film, she sees three abandoned billboards. Soon after, she’s rented them all — issuing a giant-sized reminder to the police, bathing them in guilt, urging them to do something.
Though the billboards are on a seldom-used back road, and though they’re really just a way for Mildred to feel a little bit better by taking action, they set off a chain reaction in town. Some of the townsfolk are sympathetic, but most of them feel Mildred has been unfair to the Chief — much beloved in the fictional town of Ebbing.
Slowly, but surely, the small town starts taking sides — and we get a front row seat to the polarizing forces within any community. McDonagh could have turned this into dark satire of American medievalism, a much-deserved lump of coal at the bottom of the stocking for an abandonment of common civility and caring. Yet, he doesn’t do anything of the sort.
Where he could have painted monochromatic intolerance, he finds a rainbow of beautiful flaws refracting light through the cracks. Mildred is the obvious source of sympathy, yet she’s an uncompromising hard-ass. Chief Willoughby is the town lawman, but he’s also a dedicated father and compassionate husband.
McDonagh outfits his characters with contrary traits, pushing the nurturing mother into Dirty Harry terrain while making the hick chief into a pistol-wearing Mother Goose. Both McDormand and Harrelson turn it into a surprisingly sensuous square dance, taking each other’s hand one minute only to pirouette apart the next.
And like so much of country music, the story is all-too-sad, yet the tune is so upbeat and fuelled by four-four optimism, it’s forces you to tap a toe and tip your hat to the beat. This is a purely American phenomenon, and the Englishman McDonagh therefore offers up the purest of American characters: Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
Son of a hard-boozing mother, Dixon made it through the police academy only to be accused of torturing African-Americans. He’s a good old boy and a loyal deputy to Willoughby. So when Mildred assaults the chief’s heroism, Dixon is the one who takes it upon himself to act.
Inevitably, he gets it all wrong. Noble intentions turn into vulgar beatings and crass insults. As an audience, we want to write him off, but McDonagh refuses the obvious and keeps pushing us deeper down the hole.
In the end, we find ourselves standing six feet deep — at the very bottom of this metaphorical grave — alongside every character involved. There is no escape. When life is stolen, a little piece of everyone dies. We all become culpable. We all become victims. McDonagh does such a nuanced job dissecting the burden of blame that he makes the thirst for revenge accessible, but also empty and a little absurd.
What he really unearths in this ode to the rustbelt and corroded American values is the redemptive power of love. The small town of Ebbing has been ebbing — losing jobs, hope, citizens and a semblance of small town safety. Yet, beneath the scabs of resentment and violent loss, he reveals the fresh pink skin of survival and healing: A billboard of hope that advertises comfort in the company of others.
THE EX-PRESS, November 10, 2017