Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri | Episode 76.5
Posted November 22, 2017
-review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
Who has the best stare in the movies? Nicole Kidman’s leaps to mind. She looks through her co-stars (Colin Farrell twice this year, like he was a smudged window) as if to say, “Not only do I not trust you, I own you.” Charlize Theron is close behind when it comes to looks that drill and bore. Few actors don’t blink like Laurence Fishburne. Brad Pitt tried to lift up an entire movie this year (War Machine) with the scowl of a stiff-lipped dummy. Mark Rylance and Colin Firth lead the pack of our the long, wistful English starers.
Let’s start there with Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Everytime she looks someone down, it’s a thousand-yard stare, all the way to the edges of Ebbing. Maybe to Missouri state lines. Bereaved mother Mildred Hayes (McDormand), the renter of those titular billboards, is declaring war in red and black copy against the local cops who haven’t found her daughter’s murderer. This gives Mildred ample reason to intimidate less steely men, from the local advertising executive (Caleb Landry Jones), to the good ol’ boy police chief (Woody Harrelson), to the hothead brute of a deputy (Sam Rockwell), to her ex-husband (John Hawkes). McDormand eats a meal with every stare and still amazes with her ability modulate between modes of motherhood in each interaction. While she plays the vengeful, graying lioness for most of the movie, a tenderer mother is only a lip twitch away when Mildred encounters someone in genuine pain. She softens her eyes a little, and you’re left wondering how you get the Kidman stare and Rylance stare from the same actor. Maybe that’s it. Frances McDormand can soften and harden her expression like no one else working today.
Extinguishing rage into a state of vulnerability and then fanning the fire back toward rage is the emotional pendulum at the crux of Martin McDonough’s third feature. The first act is essentially a witty but predictable put down of smalltown fuddy-duddies by a woman on a mission, taking names (blasting them on billboards, really) but no prisoners. She’ll hit cops and townsfolk where it hurts, in the court of public opinion, and then once or twice in the crotch for good measure. She dons coveralls like leisure wear and sports a bandana like corn-belt John Rambo.
Three Billboards is every bit as witty and provocative as the best of McDonough’s writing in In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, and he’s right up there with the Coens when it comes to crafting idiots who, against all likelihood, can still find a sense of purpose. That’s Officer Dixon (Rockwell) in this case. But the film becomes something of a curiosity in its middle, a turn that wins it points for complexity and maybe loses equal points for precision. It turns out this galaxy of Ebbing characters doesn’t orbit McDormand’s character at all but rather Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby. The film’s downshift shows that Officer Dixon and Mildred are extremists in a town being held together by the chief’s decency and placation. McDonough bites off a hefty challenge in turning his script into an almost epistolary reconsideration of the facts of the murder case and the characters you thought you knew. In one sense, it’s a flex move, because only a few screenwriters today could pull off such a turn, one that makes you realize the film is just as much about Ebbing as its inflammatory billboards.
Technical prowess noted, the film’s middle is still confounding. A few ideas get muddled and manipulated in the aggressive narrative braking and then reacceleration. Notably, and without maybe the requisite care/fear, McDonough makes clear Ebbing’s police are racists, even brutalizers of black people in Dixon’s case. That fact is fodder for the townspeople to throw back at the pigs. In a moment of cross-examination from a police interview room, Mildred prods Dixon: “How’s the n***er torturing?” Never having an answer for his off-screen hatred, Dixon retorts, “You have to say persons-of-color torturing.” Employing racism as provocation and atmosphere (in a fictional town that shares a real state with Ferguson) is where McDonogh is at his most Tarantino-esque, without the important or fully explored black characters to really examine what he’s up to and whether the cops deserve any forgiveness in the end. Does Dixon taking the law into his own hands for good wipe the slate clean from past and future hate? In a couple notable instances, the movie loses track of the people Ebbing PD hurts, and Three Billboards falls into the trap of a movie like Detroit, imagining the psyches of brutalizers to be more layered, interesting and worthy of time than those of their victims.
The same livewire crackle that lets these moral judgements slip through the film's fingers also allows a heap of supporting actors really get after it. Best known for playing Mac’s mom in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Sandy Martin as Dixon's mother brilliantly works over her son's emotions, from the couch with a cigarette dangling from her lips. Town drunk but standup guy Peter Dinklage steals at least one scene. Lucas Hedges subtly and beautifully plays Mildred's teenage son, who, though raised around roughneck men, can’t be as hard as his own mother and doesn’t see the use in trying. As these people bounce off each other like energy-creating electrons on main street, in the local dive, in Mildred’s kitchen, McDonough snatches his biggest victory. He captures intense, rural familiarity as a way to ground and enrich character development. When we watch characters evolve amid the fallout of Mildred’s billboards, you’re watching them turn with the weight of every Ebbing resident’s expectations and preconceived notions on their shoulders. It makes the cartoon violence real enough to grimace and the ensuing apologies more than understood. Your neighbor will fuck with you because she knows you, and afterward, she’ll help you off the ground because she knows you just the same.
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Editor’s Note: Three Billboards is not a perfect film, but it’s trying to shock you from your sense of filmic propriety while still letting great actors delight in some traditional, bantering ways. It’s a damn tall order, and the end result is, let's say, problematically good-good.