Content warning for racial slurs, sexual assault and blood/violence.
Well. This is a rough ride.
Here is a movie that demands the viewer to be with people who could very well be humanity’s worst and join at least a few of them in their journey to justice and redemption. Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a mother who tries to get the police to solve a cold case involving the violent death of her daughter by renting out three billboards on the side of the road calling out police chief Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson) for leaving the case cold. From there the titular town unravels in various ways, from bigoted police officer Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell) targeting Mildred and her family/friends, to the school turning on her son (played by Lucas Hedges) due to a devotion to a police authority that does not have the interests of its diverse citizens in mind. Complicating matters are a series of coincidences relating to the case Mildred wants to solve which could get her the justice she And…that’s all I want to share about the movie, because seeing how relationships unravel and are even mended by the movie’s climax is something to behold.
This movie is about more than just a provocative act by an embittered mother who is already struggling to make ends meet. It is also about the ways people deal with (or neglect) societal failings. Some characters do this by defaulting to the side of authority figures like the police, while others who have been marginalized by said authority are less willing to cooperate with them and have some big effects on the plot as a result. But at the center of this are notions of forgiveness and redemption, first sought from the town at large and eventually ending on a note of personal solace. Here, heroism is just a matter of who cares just enough. Moral compromise and neglect are excused because of latent authoritarianism augmented by bigotry in a setting which embodies, “Small Town Values”, and justice is just a matter of how much willpower one has and who is on your side.
But through that conflict, social reconciliation and forgiveness occur. Allegiances change over the course of the movie, with Mildred working alongside a black woman played by Amanda Warren as she tries to get the bastard who killed her daughter, even in the face of an ugly revelation in the first act. On the other side are the police chief and Dixon, the latter of whom lashes out at Mildred, her friends and the advertising company who assists her (the manager of which is played by Caleb Landry Jones). Over time, the movie begins to throw a series of coincidences at both sides which makes their antagonism propel things forward and morph into something resembling actual good. The prejudices are still there, of course. By the end of the movie no one will buy that Dixon will stop calling people, “beaner” or espouse homophobia, and no one will think that Mildred is The World’s Greatest Mother, and that’s kind of the point. What, “Three Outsides Outside Ebbing, Missouri” illustrates is how the concept of good thrives in places where marginalized members of society are ignored or victimized as a matter of course, but also in how one doesn’t have to be the platonic ideal of sainthood to deserve dignity and justice.
That may sound just a tad schmaltzy, the cinematic embodiment of the cliché, “Can’t we all just get along?” in the face of unspeakable evil and racial minorities being used as step stools on the road to solace. And you would be right, were the movie not as frank, dark, ugly and smart as it is. Granted, frankness in moviemaking regarding race, gender and class can only do so much when consumed in a society which marginalizes people based on these traits. Like the Quentin Taraninto-directed work, “The Hateful Eight”, one can’t be blamed for thinking that the project is just an excuse for writer/director Martin McDonagh to use non-stop slurs and violence in the guise of a character study. But whereas, “The Hateful Eight” has a perverse glee and reverence for cinema’s past that undercuts its attempts at nuance, history and humanism, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has a much more stark character and an actual goddamn point. The cinematography by Ben Davis, working with the costuming of Melissa Toth and art direction of Jesse Rosenthal, gives everything in daytime the look of a dingy tourist brouchure and nighttime an uncomfortable starkness even inside of lit bars and restaurants. The violence comes almost out of nowhere in parts without lingering in the frame thanks to the editing of John Gregory, and while there is music by Carter Burwell, it doesn’t grab hold of the picture or swells to give everything a perceived sense of power. It’s just noticeable by how absent it is in one scene that will, um, drill into your mind and is also only there to underline what the characters spell out, nothing more.
The cast is excellent. This could very well be Frances McDormand’s best performance ever, playing a mother whose motivations range from sheer determination to heavy guilt over not being the best parent in harsh circumstances. Sam Rockwell proves himself once again as an underrated actor, embodying the ugly character of Dixon who may or may not have redeemed himself by the end. Woody Harrelson is…pretty what you see at his age, which is great. But there are also smaller characters who augment the movie’s power, in particular Darrell Britt-Gibson as Jerome, whose interaction with Dixon lets you know from the outset just what kind of town the viewer will deal with over the course of the movie, and whose performance should have plenty of people asking him for bigger roles. At least, hopefully in movies where race relations aren’t as ugly (maybe Quentin should stick him in one of those Star Trek things he is apparently raring to do if he wants so show off how, “woke” he is, but I digress).
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the real deal. An ugly movie which provides an example of societal reinforcement of authority and the prejudices it harbors and how facing it all head-on isolates can create new binds that one may not expect. While it may be limited as a movie in being able to address the foundational ugliness of America itself (to say nothing of how it centers the white perspective even at its most frank), I side with this way of dealing with America as it is over the fetishism of, “The Hateful Eight”. Taken on its own, it’s a great how-to guide on dealing with the real world within the confines of moviemaking, and I hope that Martin McDonagh, who previously directed and wrote, “In Bruges” and, “Seven Psychopaths”, comes back with another achievement like this.
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