Teodosia Dobriyanova on Martin McDonagh’s ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ (2017)
PREVIOUSLY KNOWN FOR THE BLACKLY COMIC In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), British-Irish director Martin McDonagh seems particularly interested in themes of violence and crime as part of human nature, but also its paradoxical bedfellow, love and tenderness. The latter is reaffirmed in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the director’s finest work to date.
Although born out of McDonagh’s imagination, the town of Ebbing, in Missouri, feels as authentic as it gets — quintessential small-town America, with a facade of harmony but haunted by violence, crime, racism, and mistrust in the higher institutions. It is in this town that Mildred (Frances McDormand) decides to seek answers for the unsolved murder of her daughter. Seven months after the tragic event, there are still no arrests, not even suspects, and, determined to find the truth, Mildred confronts the local police with three large red billboards on the side of the town’s old highway that advertise their incompetence.
TBOEM is very much constructed like a modern Western, whereby each character follows their own truth and ideas of morality. Similarly to the Coen brothers’ vision of the world in No Country For Old Men (2007), McDonagh denies us the comfort of simple binaries. No character in is completely good or bad, but rather driven by their own experiences and interests. Instead of judging the world through one character’s eyes, TBOEM gives us the opportunity to view each situation through multiple perspectives.
Contrary to Mildred’s expectations, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, who seems born to play the good cop), whom she namely confronts on one of her billboards, is working hard to solve the crime, while at the same time keeping the balance in at least one of the film’s miniverses. An archetypal figure resembling a modern Atlas, Willoughby silently faces his own tragedy, while remaining in good humour and empathetic towards the rest of his small-town world, upholding a certain unideal balance. A balance that suddenly turns into chaos as a result of his absence. Police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) on the other hand, known across town as a violent abuser and for “people of colour torturing”, is a person too angry and troubled to represent the law. Middle-aged and living with a mother nostalgic for Jim Crow, his maternal entrapment seems to be taken out of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). But, as with everyone else in the film, Dixon is not completely irredeemable and a little fatherly encouragement and direction, a sign of love, is needed for a catharsis. Ultimately, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri tells the story of good-person-gets-hurt-turns-bad (or doesn’t). A scenario we have all found ourselves in, and one we could easily avoid. If there is something truly important in this world, its love and kindness, and McDonagh communicates that subtly, by showing how volatile life can be.
This great lesson in humanity is accompanied by brilliant performances. It is rare that one sees an actor become their character in the way Frances McDormand does, inhabiting Mildred’s ferocious and equally vulnerable skin so convincingly that one needs to recall her in previous roles (Fargo works perfectly as an example) to believe McDormand has not always been Mildred. If there is one more name I feel the need to mention, it is Caleb Landry Jones, whose roles this year in Twin Peaks: The Return, Get Out, The Florida Project, and now here, positions him as one of the most exciting emerging actors at the moment.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a dark and tragic story that shifts tone to humour with an effortless delicacy (imagine In Bruges, only remastered). It’s altogether devastating, funny, and hopeful. McDormand goes on to explore some of the darkest depths of humanity only to come back and reassure us there is something stronger than violence and hate, that sometimes one person is enough to make a change.
Release: January 12, 2018