In titling his latest project Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, writer-director Martin McDonagh could have looked to Michael Wolff’s feverishly popular expose into the Trump Whitehouse for inspiration. There is much fire and fury in McDonagh’s blackly comic portrayal of a fictional town in the Mid-Western state of America, a state that voted strongly for the current President. Though Wolff’s book concerns the alleged peculiarity and intransigence of the man himself and his administration, McDonagh appears to visit upon those who would be his base with a sense of topicality and urgency. While his darkly humorous style and bold premise attempts to reflect the audacity of the billboards themselves, Three Billboards becomes a problematic dramedy whose lead performance is its boldest statement.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three disused billboards on the edges of her town Ebbing, castigating the local police force in bold black font and blood-red backdrop, for failing to find her daughter’s rapist and murderer. Embattled by the community that feel for her loss but cannot find the support for her defamation of reasonable, popular police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), Mildred takes no prisoners in her one-woman stand to get recognition and justice for her daughter. Her crusade against the police force earns only her son’s contempt (Lucas Hedges), further alienation from her community and run-ins with the thuggish, simpleton officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). As the police tactics to defame and unbalance her turn nasty, despite the reassurances of the calm, collected Willoughby to re-open a case that he deems hopeless, Mildred’s anger shows no sign of abating as she increases, by degrees, her relentless campaign against them.
Characteristic to McDonagh’s earlier film In Bruges (and sharing his brother John McDonagh’s penchant for ‘gallows-humour’ in The Guard and Calvary), Three Billboards depicts its relationships with a sharp, black humour that cuts from intense sniping to quietly, kind affection within a moments; switching from embittered to compassion and back again accordingly. This is a difficult place with difficult people, as stripped down and exposed as the disused billboards that McDonagh presents so evocatively in the opening sequence shrouded in fog with Friedrich von Flow’s Last Rose of Summer from the opera Martha played with a bygone joy- the past is now truly behind us. What McDonagh methodically builds from his melancholic opening, highlighted further in Carter Burwell’s spaghetti-inflected acoustic score, is a modern Western stand-off that alternates (at times unevenly) between the comic, the beautiful and the bleak. Beneath the simmering tension is the festering anger, both personal and political, that emerges from the apathetic and negligent responses of societies’ institutions, whether they be the police, the church, the nation or the family. ‘Ebbing’ doesn’t just speak to the name but the fate of the place and its people which McDonagh tries to bring to the screen in all their provincialism, bluntness and humanity.
Yet, the result of McDonagh’s approach is to portray the complicated and difficult moral and social situation of contemporary America that feels trite, nebulous and exclusive. As other critics have noted, his attempt to reckon with race and racism in the police is problematised not only through Rockwell’s cop who in the film’s third act receives an unearned redemptive arc (but offering no conciliation to his black victims) but just the shallow and glib manner in which police torture and detention of black Americans is evoked and then backdropped in a film released post-Detroit (which, while one of my worst films of 2017, depicted unflinchingly with the psychological and physical trauma of discriminatory police brutality).
It is the anger of the mid-West’s white civilians, embodied in Mildred and Jason, from that institutional neglect, the shifting racial positions (represented in Clarke Peters’ appointment as police chief after which Jason wistfully tells his ailing mother ‘The South ain’t what is used to be’) and the violent backlash seen in Mildred’s often self-righteously destructive campaign or Jason’s reprehensible reactions that McDonagh wants his audience to recognise or else. The writer-director appears to call out for understanding, sympathy and reconciliation for a desperate middle-America, but without taking stock of all those who have suffered and continue to suffer as consequence. Perhaps this is indicative of his vantage, as an outsider and thereby he struggles to go any deeper or any further, exampled mostly in a script that has Willoughby, as obvious sympathetic foil to Mildred’s righteous anger, merely tell us about ‘the decency’ of those others though never really attempts to show us. The contradictions within these characters, the ambiguity to their nastiness and decency, is writ large enough to never feel truly rooted or sincere.
However, despite this failing, McDormand’s performance is towering: nervy and tender, unpredictable but never faltering in asserting her taut presence and unrelentingly no-nonsense approach on whomever comes across her path. She’s prone in a moment to setting the score straight and crystal clear with everyone (from upbraiding the police’s racist brutality and asserting the local pastor’s complicity in institutional child abuse in her wounded, weathered world-view) to embracing her adversaries, especially Harrelson’s Willoughby, when confronted with their own struggles. For all her hardened exterior, hair tied behind a bandana and buttoned into an overall-ready for the fight- she never lets us lose sight of the emotional exhaustion and vulnerability that lies beneath. It forefronts McDormand’s incredible range and skill, at such a contrast to the equally tough but fiercely bright and proactive cop Marge Gunderson in Fargo over twenty years ago. Only Harrelson and Rockwell convincingly hold their own as ensemble players, with the supporting cast ranging from the effective (Peters) to the rather superfluous (Peter Dinklage) though fleshing out this provincial, esoteric American town.
Three Billboards tries to be tough and honest, rolling up its sleeves to grapple with the contentious subject-matter with equal measures of gusto and pain. It makes for difficult viewing, but not only due to that subject but also the manner in which McDonagh tries to handle it and the limitations that thereby brings. McDonagh’s rendering of this place and community feels distinctly, but problematically, like a drive-by: examining only what stood out most on the side of the road during his detour into disenfranchised America.