Movies have long been a means by which the stories of generations have been told. Taxi Driver showed the world just what the horrors of war and a crime-riddled town will do to the soul of man. Dr. Strangelove took the looming threat of nuclear war and turned it into a farcical comedy. Four Lions did the same but only with terrorism.
In a tumultuous and transitory time such as this, a lot of movies are going to try and come out as a story of the times. There have already been a few, some have missed the mark, others have gotten closer. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri while not perfect does do a great job of providing a snapshot of 21st century American life, while ironically being written by an Irish national.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Director: Martin McDonagh
Release Date: December 1st, 2017
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri which I will henceforth refer to as Three Billboards takes place in a fictional small town in Missouri that as most small towns do has a dark under current running beneath the usual Americana facade. It’s a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone and word spreads quickly. Everyone keeps their head down and acts in a culturally antiseptic manner in public while whispering behind closed doors about that nasty rumor they heard while at the towns one grocery store. You might have grown up in a town like this, I know I did. Thankfully a young girl in my hometown wasn’t raped while being burned to death like Angela Hayes was while walking home one night in Ebbing, Missouri.
Three Billboards takes place nearly a year after Angela Hayes brutal death, and while her body and case are cold the fire of anger and revenge burns within in her mother, Mildred Hayes’ heart. Three Billboards wastes no time in getting to the act that the entire two hours of this movie will be predicated on. Within five minutes of opening Mildred has three billboards put up over the site where her daughter was killed, they read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” What follows is a war of attrition between Mildred and the police that will put nearly everyone against Mildred and her family, with insurmountable losses on both sides.
The story feels like a modern take on the western to me with Mildred (Frances McDormand) taking the law into her own hands and the slippery slope that leads her to with how far she will go to get what she wants, no matter how just that want is. In fact, I don’t think it could be any more modern of a take since it touches on the underlying racism of police when dealing with people of color. It does make sure to stop short of throwing every police officer under the bus though so it doesn’t feel like propaganda and instead tells a very modern American story. It’s also nice to see that it’s not all doom and gloom in this dark tale, there are some genuinely funny moments thrown in to break up the parts where you feel like there’s no hope in the world. It reminds me a bit of how In Bruges never let you get comfortable with the tone of the movie. It alternates between moments of pure dread and anxiety to times where it’s a borderline dark comedy. Some of the bits with Mildred’s ex-husband’s new young lover do feel a bit like nails on the chalkboard but I don’t know if that was intentional.
The film is also not afraid to use the color grey when it comes to its characters and for a story such as this, it’s almost necessary to stay away from allowing any character to be seen as undeniably right or wrong. Yes, we are meant to root for Mildred and her quest for justice, but her character uses every attempt to make sure we question that loyalty along the way. In a way, though I don’t think she gives a damn whether or not we support her, and that is a sign of a well fleshed out character. Meanwhile, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is given a simple but effective relation method while still standing firm that he is doing everything he can to solve Angela’s killer. It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s that all the usual routes aren’t working and there haven’t been any leads. So by most peoples definition, he is still a good cop. The same can’t be said about Officer Jason Dixon, the towns young and blatantly racist drunkard cop who still lives at home with his mother and has a history of dubious arrests. Officer Dixon acts as the makeshift villain in that he will do anything to get the billboards down, as opposed to Willoughby who understands their need but wishes they could come down. The story does have a few twists and turns that I don’t want to reveal but all in all it is a great ride.
All the roles are superbly acted with Frances McDormand being the standout. In a career-defining role as a grieving but angry mother, she is the emotional backbone of the entire movie. Through McDormand’s acting and the aide of the superb script, we go through this grieving process with her. Sam Rockwell shines as well as a momma’s boy whose life is seemingly passing him by. The supporting cast that fills out the rest of the movie all serve as pawns in the war between Mildred and the police but each one still has their own little story that drives their intentions. You can tell that Martin McDonagh leans heavily on his background in stage writing by making sure each character in this story has a purpose and is justified in their actions.
Aesthetically Three Billboards is a treat with a bright color palette and beautiful scenes of the rolling American midwest. Lush green pastures give way to surrounding hills that give the town and movie a bit of a claustrophobic feeling very indicative of a small town. The music also helps drive home that Americana feel with a familiar but appropriate score from Carter Burwell. His score evokes motifs seen in some of his previous scores, specifically True Grit and Fargo with a bit of Miller’s Crossing thrown in thanks to Officer Dixon’s love of Irish folk music
All of this combines to round out what is a great tale of American tragedy and loss where maybe the answer you get isn’t the one you initially wanted. Is it perfect? No, but I’ll be hard-pressed to find a movie that ticks all my boxes while still telling worthwhile story.