Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Directed by Martin McDonagh

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a bit of a mess, both the situation and the movie itself.  It can still be incredibly entertaining at times, but it doesn’t quite hold together.  There are too many intriguing characters with not enough screentime, a few heavy-handed dialogue exchanges, plenty of action to fill out the movie’s trailer and a very solemn, meditative heart to the movie that is rushed through because the plot never stops.

In Three Billboards, Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the mother of a teenaged daughter who was raped and murdered some months before.  Mildred has a tough exterior.  She’s gruff, profane and prone to violence, and she decides to pay to put up three billboards that call out local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).  Despite her own personal trauma, this decision alienates her from the rest of the town, particularly because Willoughby is in the process of dying from cancer.

Later in the film a young, doe-eyed, presented as simple-minded girl will say, “anger begets more anger,” and this is the theme of the movie.  Mildred is our protagonist, yet it’s her fury that leads to more fury in response.  A dentist intimidates her, a man visits her store to taunt her, a racist cop throws someone out a window, and later the billboards will be set on fire.

Mildred is grieving, but she hasn’t found the proper outlet for that grief.  Police Chief Willoughby, whom she calls out, turns out to be a nice enough guy.  His failure to arrest whoever is responsible for the death of Mildred’s daughter is due to a lack of evidence.  There is nothing more he can do at this time, and between that and his diagnosis he turns out to be a very sympathetic character.  There’s also Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) whose over the top racism contrasts with Willoughby, making him even more of a likable guy.

Because of the overt antagonism of characters like Dixon and a few others who confront Mildred, we’re firmly on her side.  The shades of gray of her character are washed out by the presence of simplistic characters who act against her.  We’re not meant to try and understand Mildred’s behavior but just to watch it unfold.  For a story about intense grief and misplaced anger, this film is less a character study and more a series of dominoes, one falling into the next.

Three Billboards takes a few twists and turns, putting everything in place so that you have Mildred on one side and Officer Dixon on the other.  They are the two characters at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Dixon is most offended by the billboards even as Willoughby has enough sense to understand Mildred’s grief.  In a weird way, Willoughby is her closest ally, but a strange turn of events will remove him from the story.

The plot mechanisms of this movie are quietly complex, but they betray the heart of the story.  The plot moves so quickly and puts Mildred and Dixon on the same side by the end of the film, but the story is never really about their relationship.  The core of the film, the heart-wrenching tragedy that leads to Mildred’s behavior, feels more like an excuse to tell a fun, action-packed story with comic characters which is fine except that the movie then tries to suddenly pull a U-turn and return to that sense of heart-wrenching tragedy at the end of the film.

When a movie character acts in a strange way in response to grief, you know that the movie, even as it gets bigger and broader, will eventually return to that grief.  As the story grows and escalates, eventually the protagonist will have to think about how they go to this point.  What has pushed them this far?

So in Three Billboards this return to the grief at the heart of the film isn’t surprising, but it feels tonally separate from the rest of the film.  Maybe that’s just because most of the film is meant to be so entertaining, both funny and exciting, and at times it is.  But the movie loses track of itself from time to time.  Grief can be funny from a distance or with enough time to reflect, and McDonagh captures this incredibly well in 2008’s In Bruges, a story about a suicidal hit man and his partner whose eventually tasked with eliminating him.

In that story, everything flowed from the same source, in the same direction.  Even when Colin Farrell makes a joke, you can tell it’s coming from a place of intense pain.  Maybe there’s just a fine line between humor and tragedy, and maybe that’s what McDonagh is trying to capture here.  Except, Three Billboards is about grief and misplaced anger, and that doesn’t sound like a story with any room for humor.

Three Billboards has moments that work tremendously well, both moments of despair and of comedy, but together it never quite gels.  If McDonagh is trying to draw a line between grief, anger and humor, well it doesn’t quite hold up.  Part of that is because there is no sense that the grief Mildred feels is actually manifesting itself through this kind of anger.

And what I mean is that the film takes a very conscious step towards showing us that Mildred has always been as vulgar and gruff as she is in the film.  In a flashback scene we see the way she last interacted with her daughter on the morning of her death.  Mildred and her kids curse like sailors, and they show their love for each other in strange, sardonic ways.  I think the point of this scene is to show that only Mildred would react this way, by setting up the three billboards, while an ordinary person would not.

But I think the point of the film is also to show that anyone can let their grief manifest in dark ways.  “Anger begets more anger,” is meant to refer to anyone, to humanity, and yet the film explicitly shows us that Mildred is a unique case.  So if McDonagh is trying to make a point about how destructive humans are by nature, he’s undercutting his own point by showing us that Mildred is unlike anyone else.

And then you have Officer Dixon.  He helps escalate the problem by throwing a guy out the window.  The guy he harms, Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), works for the company that puts up the billboards, and Dixon harms him because he can’t get to Mildred.  He also does this in the wake of learning that Chief Willoughby has died from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Dixon is a special case as well because he’s incredibly violent and known to break the law.  He’s unlike any other cop seen in this town, and like Mildred he has trouble reigning it in.  He expresses his grief through anger.

For the film to work, these two characters have to be as explosive as they are, and they have to be on opposite sides, working against each other in ways to generate conflict.  It’s certainly entertaining, but these characters are each heightened to such a degree that the broader message of the film doesn’t seem to go beyond the two of them.  This isn’t a story about how we deal with grief but about how Mildred and Dixon deal with grief.

I’m having trouble writing about this because I’m still not sure what the film is saying.  The story is also populated with several other storylines that go nowhere.  When Willoughby dies, a new chief of police is brought in who happens to be black, something that enrages Dixon, himself known to have tortured a black man or two in custody before.  So when the new chief comes in, he fires Dixon and that’s it.  The last we see of him, the chief tries to tell Mildred that they’re on the same side, but she doesn’t listen.  We never hear from him again.

Then there’s James (Peter Dinklage) a dwarf who fancies Mildred, and when he stands in as her alibi on the night she sets the police station on fire, she agrees to go on a date with him.  When the date doesn’t go well (Mildred runs into her ex-husband), she takes it out on James, and he leaves, sad.  She never makes it up to him.

There’s also Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who has one awkward monologue in which he tells her how depressed he is but is otherwise left on the sidelines.  The story never gives him any kind of arc even though he has to deal with the same grief as Mildred as well as an implied pressure at school by kids and their parents who are bothered by Mildred’s behavior.

Even Chief Willoughby, who I mentioned commits suicide, has a very strange arc.  The film takes time to humanize him, a positive step narratively that helps present a challenge to Mildred’s goal, but then his decision to kill himself is kind of… inexplicable.  I suppose it does present a challenge in that the town considers this might be a response to Mildred’s billboards, but the time spent with Willoughby and his family goes nowhere.  They’re presented as this picture perfect family, but what’s the point?  We know that Willoughby’s suicide was not due to the billboards but to not wanting to watch the cancer spread, so it seems like this time spent with his family is unnecessary.  IF we were to suspect that the billboards might’ve contributed to his death, then this time would be more impactful as we see the consequences of Mildred’s behavior, but again, we know why he kills himself.

One night the billboards are set on fire, and Mildred believes it’s Dixon’s doing.  In response she throws Molotov cocktails at the police station, setting it ablaze.  What she doesn’t realize is that Dixon is inside the building, and he suffers bad burns on part of his body.  This is the first time Mildred shows some degree of guilt for what she’s done.

Later, once released from the hospital, Dixon will go to a bar where he overhears a man bragging about abusing a woman similar to the way Mildred’s daughter was abused and killed.  Dixon gets the mans license plate and gets into a fight so he can get the man’s DNA.  He tells Mildred that they may have gotten their man.

Later Dixon finds out this isn’t their guy, and he and Mildred will decide to go after this man anyway because even if he didn’t kill her daughter, he hurt someone.  They embark on a road trip, and the movie ends, with them in a state of purgatory.  Their grief will lead to more violence, and there’s no sense that Mildred will ever move past this.

I think the ending works for Mildred’s character.  If the theme is about misplaced anger and the inability to heal, then this makes sense.  Just as the billboards were an expression of grief, so is this little vengeful roadtrip.  It’s just something else to take up her time and mental energy.  But for Dixon’s character, I don’t understand his motivation.

The story gives Dixon the clearest arc.  He’s a racist, worthless cop who atones for his past sins and does something productive, but I don’t see any reason he should be in that car with Mildred in the end.  The film suggests that they’re in this together, but their two characters have gone on completely different character arcs for them to be in the same place at the end.

It just feels… scattered.

Three Billboards is often funny and entertaining, but the grief never quite lands, even as it makes perfect sense.  In the two scenes I remember most clearly in which a character expresses their grief, the moment feels incredibly forced, like a scene from a completely different movie and one of lesser quality.

The movie works best in the middle, with the escalating set pieces and the humor derived from Dixon’s unlikely innocence (swaying his legs while the police station he’s in slowly catches fire), but the movie has a hard time getting going and a hard time ending.  It’s very much built on momentum which the movie can sustain, but like a dense locomotive, the movie struggles to get it going and to slow it to a stop.

Up Next: Unfaithfully Yours (1948), Terms of Endearment (1983), Obit. (2016)

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