Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Why is Martin McDonagh’s new film called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? The title recalls some of his work for the stage, such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan or A Behanding in Spokane, but it also suggests a specificity that isn’t borne out by the film. Three Billboards was shot entirely in North Carolina, some 900 miles away from Missouri, and this fictional town could easily have been situated in a multitude of American states, so why not call the film, say, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, North Carolina? Maybe McDonagh just thinks it sounds better. Maybe none of this matters. Admirers of the film will argue that the location isn’t relevant as McDonagh’s film is about universal truths and the human condition rather than any particular group of people, but his grasp of these issues appears to be as weak as his geography.

What do we know about Ebbing, anyway? We know that there’s a long road that nobody uses “unless they got lost or they’re retards” and that alongside this road there are three derelict billboards, which haven’t been rented since the '80s. We know that the Ebbing Advertising office sits directly across the street from the police station (for storytelling convenience), and this is where Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) goes after the vacant site has caught her eye. RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS? / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY? the signs soon read in stark black letters on a background that bathes every passing driver in red when their headlights hit the boards at night. It was Mildred’s teenage daughter who was murdered seven months earlier, and her attempt to shine a spotlight on this apparently dormant case turns almost everybody in the town against her.

Most of those who turn against her are men. It would be interesting to know what the women of Ebbing, Missouri think about Mildred’s actions, but as written by McDonagh – and played by Samara Weaving, Kerry Condon, Abbie Cornish and Amanda Warren – they don’t seem to have many thoughts in their heads at all. Samara Weaving’s Penelope just read a book about polo and still gets it confused with polio – the kind of line that might get a cheap laugh but doesn’t actually make a lot of sense, which is the case with much of McDonagh’s writing. When Mildred tries to provoke the racist cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell) by asking him, “How’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?” he indignantly replies, “It’s the persons of colour-torturing business these days, if you want to know. And I didn’t torture nobody.” This exchange is twofer for the writer-director, aimed at stinging viewers with the casual use of a racial slur from the ostensible heroine and then making them laugh at Dixon’s dopiness, but all I could think was: Who talks like this?

Part of McDonagh’s goal here appears to be testing how far we’ll stick with this grieving mother as her rage and grief drives her to commit an escalating series of irrational acts in the name of justice. Mildred tells a priest to get the fuck out of her house, she attacks a dentist with his own drill, she kicks two high school students in the crotch, she firebombs the police station. She doesn’t face consequences for any of her actions, but neither does anyone else. We already know that Dixon has gotten away with torturing a black suspect before we see him punching a young woman in the face and throwing a man through a first floor window. He might be finally kicked off the force as a result, but no criminal charges are apparently forthcoming. Instead he receives forgiveness from the victim of his violence just a few scenes later (they are placed side-by-side in the hospital, naturally) and quickly turns the corner towards redemption.

Guilt and forgiveness are key themes in Three Billboards but McDonagh’s writing is insultingly glib, and too much of it feels like a rough first draft in need of further revisions. McDonagh’s writing in his previous films In Bruges and particularly the dire Seven Psychopaths was often incoherent and full of cheap shots, but those flaws feel more pronounced here because he is attempting to grapple with real emotional pain. Isn’t there a better way to suggest Mildred’s feelings of guilt than a flashback in which we learn that “I hope you get raped too!” were the last words she shouted at her daughter? The actors McDonagh has assembled are too good for the film to be complete write-off – Frances McDormand relishes a rare meaty role, and Woody Harrelson is much-missed when he’s not on screen – but they are playing cartoons rather than real people, pawns in McDonagh’s game, and no more flesh-and-blood than the egregious CGI deer that turns up at one point to hear Mildred’s monologue. Ultimately it doesn’t matter where Three Billboards is supposed to take place, because nothing in it feels real.