Martin McDonagh’s newest plays as a perfect antidote to the antagonistic age.
RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)
These days, it feels like one would find more success in pushing a washing machine full of cement across the surface of the Atlantic Ocean than in engaging someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum. The plight of Sisyphus never held such envy as it does in this civic climate.
We’ve always disagreed, but has there been a time in our nation’s recent history where it feels like we all legitimately hate each other?
It’s unbeknownst to anyone but writer/director Martin McDonagh if he holds some ability to see into the future, as the screenplay for his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, was written well-before the rise of Donald Trump, the tragedy of Charlottesville or the myriad of recent headlines that send you sinking into your despair chair. His new film plays as a response to the vitriol of the times as it does a clear warning to anyone who allows the shadows of humanities basic vices to consume them.
After waiting many long months for the Ebbing, Missouri, police department to solve the rape/murder of her daughter Angela, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has grown hardened by time, remorse and fading trust in the institutions that were purported to balance the scales between crime and justice. To spark the investigation anew, she rents out three rotted billboards in a secluded part of town to share messages of public shame on local law enforcement for their inaction. She namechecks the town’s beloved Sherriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who suffers from a terminal case of pancreatic cancer. Needless to say, she wins no new fans, and loses a lot of community suppport.
On the other end of this spectrum lies Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon is a bit of an imbecile. Simple in speech and quick to reaction, Dixon walks with an unearned swagger, but wilts at any mention that questions his authority or intelligence (or pokes fun at the fact that he still lives with his mother). He’s also kind of a racist, with a reputation around Ebbing for harassing the city’s black citizens. As Mildred’s offensive on the department heats up, Willoughby does his best to try and wave down the flames of the grieving mother’s rage, Dixon aims his sights on haphazardly pressing his thumb on the billboard’s leaser (Caleb Landry Jones) to take the signs down. Harry Callahan, he is not.
Until a mid-film catastrophe ignites the engine that drives the film home, “Three Billboards” hops and skips around its central characters, shading their fatal flaws with a stark illumination of soul.
Mildred switches from drilling a hole in an oafish dentist’s thumb as retaliation for privately complaining about her efforts to empathizing with her abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) about how each is coping with Angela’s murder. Dixon fumbles around his policing duties with the cunning of an inebriated elephant while tending to his ailing mother (Sandy Martin). He quivers with insecurity whenever someone mocks his arrested development (sadly ironic for someone whose job is to arrest people).
Few filmmakers would have the iron gumption to mount a film about the breathtaking complexity of humanity on such a morbid premise and such seemingly-foul characters. But, remember who we’re dealing with here. McDonagh is the same filmmaker who brought an ounce of grace to a film literally titled Seven Psychopaths.
The twisting tales of Mildred and Dixon entangle themselves into a bracing tower of empathy. Buoyed on what the actors do with McDonagh’s characters, and what the mastermind does to tie all the wires together, Three Billboards aches with the desire to find good in a world on fire. Even though the bomb has clearly gone off, and all around it are filled with burns and shrapnel, he challenges all to find the flowers amidst the fallout. Even when it all looks bleak, and characters like the vengeful mother and the bigot policeman seem irredeemable, hope springs eternal in Ebbing, Missouri. Though, it’s only found for those willing to understand their neighbor, and lower their weapons.
The complexity of McDonagh’s script pushes its chips in on the actor’s ability to understand the delicate tone. Mildred occasionally has to go from fist clenched to heart open in a matter of milliseconds, and that’s a high risk for an actor to in a film that’s wades so carelessly between comedy and drama. With McDormand, it’s comes naturally. She embodies Mildred’s dueling spirit of jagged justice and gaping grief with impeccable range. She is all at once weary and a warrior, ready to nail the comedic timing amidst all the tragedy like LeBron James going in for an unguarded layup.
While Marge Gunderson will always be her greatest role, Mildred Hayes might be McDormand’s finest achievement. It’s her flu game. The little golden man engraving is already five minutes late.
As for Rockwell, Dixon requires a level of subtly most actors would be tempted to overplay. Known primarily for being a boisterous, charismatic presence on screen, the veteran actor settles in to the lumbering curiosity that makes Dixon all at once loathsome and likeable.
McDonagh dares the audience to latch on to Dixon’s arc, and ultimately, root for his redemption, and Rockwell does splendid work in carrying his character on the journey. If not for the actor’s earnestness, the film would have trouble smacking in the grand slam it irrevocably achieves.
Harrelson plays Willoughby with sincerity and sly wisdom. He’s the film’s moral compass, and through some particularly powerful voice work later in the film’s runtime, breathes in the film’s wisdom, even if it’s a little on-the-nose. McDonagh tells the film like a fable, and all the best fables spell out their secrets plainly.
Late in the film, there’s a pivotal moment at an Ebbing fine eatery where Mildred confronts her ex-husband once more. He’s eating with his dolt of a girlfriend, a young woman whose eyes are as vacant as the Grand Canyon and who has recently been let go from a job scooping poop at the local zoo. So, on the surface, not exactly a contemporary of Voltaire and Proust. As the trio discuss the ongoing events to that point, the young lady says a sentiment she read on the back of a book mark – “anger begets greater anger.”
Whether she meant to utter the film’s central message – the defining antidote to 2017 – is to be determined. McDonagh draws no such doubt. Both the message and the messenger hammer in the brilliance and value of what he’s accomplished.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is now playing across Nashville at the Regal Green Hills 16, the Regal Hollywood 27 and the AMC Thoroughbred 20.