January 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
Amid green hills by a shining lake, the fictional town in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has literally been bypassed (by a new highway) and left behind for its bigotries to flourish. The film feels so unanchored in time that it’s a surprise when, towards the end, a mobile phone rings and is pulled from a pocket.
Small-town slowness compounds this sense of the present being stuck in the past, the slowness of a place where nothing happens until violence does. What the film most resembles is a Western, with all the grit, stubbornness and wilful momentum of that genre, its lawlessness, even its characters’ names, and its topography too: Main Street becomes the centre of the action, with a double-fronted police station across the road from a bar and a cramped advertising agency (what might once have been a newspaper office).
The trailer for Martin McDonagh’s film suggests a tale of a woman’s brave fight for justice when failed by police incompetence or corruption, but one to be lifted from worthiness by the reliable heft of Frances McDormand’s acting. When her character, Mildred Hayes, buys billboard space to challenge chief Willoughby about the stalled investigation into her daughter’s rape and murder we soon discover nothing so cut and dried.
Willoughby is a decent upright lawman who has done his best while hampered by his slow-witted and near-psychotic deputy, Dixon, a vicious racist and misogynist. Mildred, separated from a violent husband, displays a courage and determination fuelled by righteous anger about her life and her poverty as well as her daughter’s death. Adept in foulmouthed repartee and sometimes randomly spiteful with those who obstruct her, she’s no angel. It’s Willoughby, after an early and surprising exit, who assumes that role, effecting changes of an unlikely kind, offering wild last chances and new hopes.
Anger (too often misdirected) is what the film turns on. And, from start to finish, humour, which runs through a script that has quickness of dialogue in abundance, making you smile and gasp by turns. Of course it’s one of Mildred’s qualities, and Willoughby’s. Without it, how would you begin to deal with that shambolic sense of dereliction, with hatreds left over from the past of the southern states, with the madness that has gripped so many? How would you turn what would otherwise be corny sentiments about human love and kindness into serious truths?
I was struck by the differences between the three central performances. McDormand and her character seem indivisible here: she has always, to my knowledge, played tough determined women, yet Mildred is both a heightened version of these and something more complicated, strength of character without power or awareness of what she’s really up against. Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby is an almost transparent rendering of the part and we see through it to Harrelson’s skill. Dixon’s visceral and savage performance, caricatural at first, makes it hard to believe there’s an actor (Sam Rockwell) inside it. It’s pure rage.
Other characters have their distinctness: Welby, the billboard renter, the butt of Dixon’s homophobia, played by Caleb Landry Jones; the startling eloquence of Peter Dinklage as the town dwarf. Even minor parts have a purpose, a story or a line of dialogue that enlightens or stings with its poignancy. Among these are the black characters, just stepping in occasionally, saner and surer than anyone else – so alert to the present it’s as if they’ve come from the future.
Throughout, the film continues to surprise us, and gradually to move us. We might even be prompted, if not to forgiveness, at least to glimpsing some reason for the vileness of the vilest character of all.
The last Western I saw in the cinema was Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, a state of the nation film from before Trump’s election. At the risk of making facile parallels, I’d say that Three Billboards represents a small but piercing insight into the desperation that brought it about.