Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Afterwards, I asked Patricia if she could think of an actor who could play the lead besides Frances McDormand. Because I couldn’t. Allison Janney, maybe? Annette Bening? McDormand is perfect for the part. Chin up, working class, beyond world-weary but tough as nails, with an undercut of the maternal that might reveal itself at an odd moment—like when the cancer-ridden sheriff, in the midst of interrogating her, coughs blood into her face, and as she goes for help, she comforts him, calling him baby. It just slips out: that baby. That tenderness.
No surprise that writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) wrote Mildred for her. The punchline? She had to be convinced by husband Joel Coen:
“At the time he gave it to me I was 58 ... I was concerned that women from this socioeconomic strata did not wait until 38 to have their first child. So we went back and forth and we debated that for quite a while, and then finally my husband said, ‘Just shut up and do it.’”
One more thing to thank him for.
Mildred is less Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” than Elaine Miller in “Almost Famous”—berating Russell Hammond, then counseling him, then reminding him of his responsibilities. She’s Olive Kitteridge. She’s McDormand herself winning the Oscar for “Fargo”: that tough stride she took on her way across the stage.
I expected “Three Billboards” to be good but an eat-your-vegetables movie: the kind of dull indie that sacrifices plot for local Midwest detail. It’s not that kind of movie at all.
Burn after reading
No time is wasted getting to the billboards. Opening credits, they’re there in the morning fog, run down and dilapidated, their original messages a checkerboard of illegibility. So: a movie about a small Midwest town struggling to survive in the digital age?
Nope. A freeway was put in, not many drive this two-lane highway anymore, but Mildred, who lives nearby, has an idea. She contracts the local company for all three billboards and puts up this message in the manner of the old Burma Shave ads:
RAPED WHILE DYING
AND STILL NO ARRESTS?
HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
So: a movie about small-town police corruption and one woman’s battle to bring the truth to light?
That’s how it seems, particularly when we meet Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim, small-town bully known for racial profiling. But then Mildred has a tete-a-tete with Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), he asks her advice, and after each of her suggestions he tells her of the civil rights violations involved. The further the scene progresses, the more you can feel your sympathies shifting away from her and toward him.
The movie keeps doing this; it keeps shifting on us. Willoughby is dying of cancer, Mildred knows and doesn’t care. Or she doesn’t let caring get in the way of her quest. Her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges, “Manchester By the Sea”), is embarrassed; she doesn’t care. And there’s Willoughby revisiting the scene of the crime, looking for clues. At the same time, the cops use what power they have. Mildred is hauled in, while her friend and coworker, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested to put pressure on her. Don’t forget how good Woody Harrelson is here. The scene after he coughs up blood, when he’s in the hospital room joshing with his wife (Abbie Cornish), and then alone, and the myriad of emotions that cross his face? The fear, mostly, and bone-deep sadness? Damn.
The crowning achievement in the battle with Mildred is his: He commits suicide. He has a perfect day with his wife and kids, and he wants them to hold onto that memory of him—not the one of him slowly wasting away—so out by the stable he puts a bag over his head and shoots himself. Watching, you know everyone will blame Mildred, and he knows it, too. He tells her so in a farewell letter. Plus the mysterious donor who paid for the billboards for another month? Him. So people will continue to blame her. The beauty of this is it’s not really malicious. His tone is amused, and she laughs, reading it. You can tell she already misses him. So do we.
Maybe too much. In the wake of his suicide, either the characters become unmoored or the movie does. The one-upmanship goes a bit over-the-top:
- Dixon throws Red, the local billboard owner (Caleb Landry Jones, “Get Out”), out his second-story window. In full view of everyone.
- Dixon is then fired by the new police chief (Clarke Peters of “The Wire”).
- The billboards are burned down—and Dixon is suspected.
- In retaliation, Mildred throws Molotov cocktails into the police station, but unbeknownst to her Dixon is inside.
Dixon winds up with third-degree burns on his body and face, and in the same hospital room as Red—the man he put there. He doesn’t get away with his crime; Mildred does. As does the murderer/rapist who set everything in motion.
If the second act seems like excess, and it did a bit to me, the movie rights itself. The third act is basically redemption. Dixon’s is the Colin Farrell/“In Bruges” role: the dim man who’s done bad things but whose moral compass is, or becomes, true.
Indeed, for a moment, you think he’s going to be the hero: the one to solve the crime through extreme sacrifice—getting beat up to get DNA. Thankfully, things aren’t so clean in McDonagh’s world. But the act unites Dixon and Mildred, who set out on their own quest. For justice? For further injustice? Who knows? They don’t even know. It’s a beautifully ambiguous ending. The world is rotten, but amidst all that there’s forgiveness. The movie feints toward giving us what we want (justice) only to give us what we need. What we truly, desperately need.