Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, dir. Martin McDonagh │Martin McDonagh’s films, in particular In Bruges (2008), are known for their eloquent vulgarity and the script for Three Billboards is undeniably extremely witty and absurd. Yet what takes the film beyond the point of being simply enjoyable is its ever- surprising emotional depth. For every half-thought-out joke, a burst of extreme sentiment pierces through the characters, only to be again elevated by and contrasted with more idiocy.
Frances McDormand brings her characteristic acerbity to portray Mildred, a woman working in a ‘Southern Charms’ store in Ebbing, Missouri, selling local curios One day, she buys three abandoned billboards to display a rather threatening message to sheriff Willoughby, a calm and ballsy man played with discreet warmth by Woody Harrelson. The fact that her words on the posters form a question prevent the sheriff from legally placing her under arrest, but the odd signs start a chain of events involving several Ebbing residents, to Mildred’s satisfaction. One year earlier, her teenaged daughter Angela was raped and killed near these billboards, and no one seems to care that suspects have yet to be arrested. Mildred -the name unavoidably recalls Mildred Pierce, another devoted mother of cinema- is bitter and unlikable to most people, which is at first simply amusing and thrilling: she wants the police to do their job, and provokes them with what originally appears like hyperbole.
McDonagh derives most of the humour of his first half-hour from the bafflement of everyone in town, in particular that of officer Jason Dixon, played by a loud and dumb Sam Rockwell. The racist and hot-tempered policeman cannot stand this attack on the department he loves so deeply, despite his utter ineptitude at his job; his reactions are insanely and hilariously overblown, but also paint a man broken beyond repair. Through their respective strange behaviours, each character doesn’t only bring the laughs, but also reveals his or her deepest cuts. Willoughby’s interactions with Mildred are full of complexity and transcend the opposition between the two protagonists: he indeed hasn’t found Angela’s murderer, but he also has daughters of his own and is himself dealing with death as he slowly succumbs to cancer. Suddenly, they empathise deeply -even if always discreetly- with each other’s pain. McDonagh’s writing is both loose and precise as he gives space for rambling -but funny- jokes, yet directs them towards an ever deeper understanding of his characters, further and further away from the small-town American cliches he so swiftly establishes at the outset.
Mildred’s provocation pushes other people in the town to the limits of their prejudice and hatred. Brought to breaking point, Dixon throws the billboard seller Red (Caleb Landry Jones) out of a window, thus putting him in hospital and losing his job. This whirlwind of physical violence is however too extreme to last and in McDonagh’s world, only forgiveness can stop it. None of the most brutal punches and cruel one-liners are as shocking and riveting as those instances when people so far dramatically opposed -by circumstances or their own obstinacy- come together to say sorry or help each other. The contrast between the bloodiness of these confrontations and the tenderness that eventually overcomes them is the meeting of extreme opposites, yet McDonagh avoids any sense of over-calculation or emotional manipulation. Slowly and always with wit and an astonishing flair for comic dialogue, he builds up to these moments.
If there’s a grain of truth in every joke, McDonagh believes this truth is worth digging out and addressing directly. Although ultimately not all wrongs can be corrected in a world as absurd as this one, Mildred’s relentlessness will have made the people of Ebbing confront what was behind all their ridiculous witticisms. As her passive means evolve into more brutal aggression from the men -and then from her, dressed up in manly worker’s overalls-, this particularly masculine need to resort to violence to come to terms with each other appears deeply stupid and pernicious. Mildred’s peaceful protest turns out to be effective after all, by forcing tenderness to come and counter the excess of violence it has generated.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri │ Director: Martin McDonagh │ Screenplay: Martin McDonagh │ Camera: Ben Davis│ Editing: Jon Gregory│ Music: Carter Burwell│ Cast: Frances McDormand Woody Harrelson Sam Rockwell│ Producer: Graham Broadbent Pete Czernin Martin McDonagh │ Production Company: Film4 / Blueprint Pictures │Country: USA│ Year: 2017│ Running Time: 115 min.│ International Sales: Fox Searchlight │ Festival: Toronto IFF 2017│