With the proclamation of its title and the weathered defiance of Frances McDormand’s thousand-yard stare, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film which demands attention. And it has garnered it, both from the critics and the Academy, as it edges ahead as the Oscars’ frontrunner, and deservedly so, perhaps. It’s by no means an easy film, but McDonagh has never aimed to be easy; not as a filmmaker, nor as a playwright. He thrusts forward reprehensible characters with tricky opinions and attitudes, all wrapped in violence and dark humour, and seems to avoid comfort at all costs. But, dig past the smash and crash of the trailer material, and there is a welcome tenderness to Three Billboards which marks it out from McDonagh’s earlier work, and betrays a maturity of spirit, however much he might hate such an idea.
The tenderness emerges as the possibility of affection and respect for a person, even when that seems to fly in the face of sense. Throughout Three Billboards characters stand-off and are later forced to reconcile, to seek a humanity which is in abundance, even when the tough small-town exterior seems to seek to shut it out. It leads, inexorably, to the biggest question: can reconciliation be sought for whoever committed the central atrocity – the (perhaps overly) brutal murder of Mildred Hayes’ daughter, for whom the billboards are requisitioned? Or perhaps the bigger question: should we expect easy answers to such complexities? And should we expect them of our fictions?
It is here, I think, where the critiques levelled at McDonagh’s approach to race are misplaced. Mildred encounters, among the police of Ebbing, a young, racist slob of an officer in the figure of Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, who is known across town for his beating of black youth in custody. This is not, as some seem to suggest, handled lightly or skimmed over – he is a hated, distrusted figure, a stain upon the town with a very fragile hold on his position. And Dixon knows it, and is ill-equipped to deal with it, so hides behind his comic books and a feeble attempt at attitude. In truth, this is a young cop from a racist family who has not given himself the chance to confront his own thoughts and has fallen, instead, into the comfort of generalised mindlessness. It has made him racist, which he neither conceals or attempts to confront. The kicker is his narrative trajectory as he weaves the corridors of McDonagh’s careful plotting to emerge in a more likeable guise. But is he redeemed? Saved? Changed? Perhaps instead the skin of the archetype is peeled back to allow a proper look at the mess inside; much of it bad, but some of it good, and the two are so intricately entwined it is impossible to unravel it out to a simpler pattern.
It was trickier, for me, to swallow other issues, like the repeated use of the word ‘retard’ which has already lost whatever humour it might have once had, and the lending of a certain amount of legitimacy to violent vengeance. Whether it’s an amusing kick to the gender-unspecific genitals, or the horror of being thrown out of a first-story window into oncoming traffic, there’s an uneasy message that reacting with violence might sometimes be the only option, might sometimes be the best option. In the age of marching neo-Nazis, relentless mass shootings and prolific terrorism, such a cultural resistance of pacifism is becoming increasingly hard to stomach. There may come a time soon when Hollywood might have to face up to its own adoration of the swinging fist and the shooting gun.
Frances McDormand is unrivalled. She holds the whole weight of the film in her staunch, accusatory glare and bears it with fearsome grace and furious poise. Beneath it, an occasional softness can be glimpsed, like the surprise appearance of a deer, and it allows her to give contemplation to the chaos of the universe and the vague possibility of peace, before the shutters come slamming back down. The opening moments when we see her drive past the eponymous billboards and plot out the course of the rest of her life is a masterly construction of glances and silences. Visually, we have the juxtaposition laid out: this will be a film about loud shouts, but also the quietude of innermost thoughts, and the good and the bad of those two states will constantly battle for ascendency. McDormand deserves awards, of course she does. Here is the yin to the yang of her career defining performance as Marge in Fargo (1996). There’s a curious evolution, perhaps: the unborn child of Fargo is the lost daughter of now, the strained desperation of the Coens resurrected as the brash defiance of McDonagh.
The supporting cast also excel, particularly Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby, the film’s most tender and likeable figure. And it is high credit to McDonagh’s script that he gives fair expression to even the most minor of roles and achieves a real sense of the community of Ebbing. The story itself is masterfully constructed, and you soon fall gracefully into the flow of it, with its confident turns and deft expression. It is matched by Ben Davis’s glorious cinematography, and Carter Burwell’s delicate score, all of which lend more gentleness to offset the tension and brutality.
The result is a questionable film that wants to be questionable, but may offer a different set of questions to different viewers. Like the billboards themselves, destined to be iconic, it shouts in your face while it stands in the roll of a gentle meadow. It asks loud questions which, as Willoughby says, ain’t very fair. But neither is life with its endless battle of loss and surprise, where hope needs to be sought, forced and confronted, and still won’t let itself be found.