Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
When I left the theater after seeing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri I was struggling mightily to figure out how I felt about it. I went into Billboards as I have most of the Oscar nominations this year, not having seen a trailer or read another about it. The movie is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who also pulled double duty on Seven Psychopaths which I didn’t see, and In Bruges which I absolutely loved.
Like In Bruges, Three Billboards is a tragic comedy, though with a bit less comedy and much more of the tragic. Don’t be fooled by the trailers that feature many of the jokes in the movie. Billboards had me sucking in air at times, not just from some of the violence but often for the horrible things the characters said to each other that you knew they’d never be able to take back. The movie opens seven months after the daughter of McDormand’s character Mildred has been murdered.
The case has gone cold and there have been no arrests so Mildred decides to do the only thing she can think of. She rents space on three billboards on an old country road, using them to call out the Chief, played by Woody Harrelson for his lack of progress on the case. Three Billboards reminded me of many things while also feeling in total like something I’d never seen before. At times the material feels as though it is being yanked in opposite directions.
I was reminded of the movie Frances McDormand is probably best known for, Fargo – in Three Billboards wild vacillations between quirky local comedic characters and brutal physical and emotional violence. McDonagh doesn’t quite manage to make those elements harmonize with the same mastery that the Coen Brothers do, but McDonagh’s characters also feel more intimately complex to me than most in the Coen’s streamlined style. I was reminded of the relentless suffocating tragedy of Monster’s Ball, but every time I thought Three Billboards’ characters had gone to places from which there was no coming back, they would stop and have a drink with each other cracking wise.
These characters are people that don’t really exist in the real world – their dialogue is a little too sharp, their actions a little too goofy, their wit a little too uniformly quick – but each of the central ensembles is reaching for their own meaning in their lives and their struggles feel achingly painfully familiar. I was completely swept up. Mildred is clawing at life for any sign of meaning and order. Something that could bring sense to her daughter’s horrifying and senseless death.
I think to say too much about the other character’s arcs would verge on spoilers. Feelings Unsurprisingly, the entire movie, save for one minor character, is flawlessly acted. Frances McDormand’s performance as Mildred is one I could not look away from – at times icy and unyielding and others soft and burning with emotion. She is so good in this movie. Of the things I’ve seen her in (which admittedly is not much beyond her Coen Brothers fare), this is far and away from her best performance, and she was already on the shortlist of greatest actresses working currently.
Sam Rockwell, who plays uneducated sleazeballs so well imbues Dixon with a surprising vulnerability at times. For the most part, Woody Harrelson plays himself as chief Willoughby, but it works well as Willoughby seems tailor-made for him. And the Chief has own arc and journey within the story. And while all three leads have been known at times to take their characters wildly over the top in other films, none of them do here as it might’ve risked selling out their struggles. And with the exception of the one character I mentioned, the satellites in orbit around these three are all wonderfully performed. I wish Peter Dinklage had been more of the movie. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Can we please get him in more lead roles? Rememory wasn’t that great, and The Station Agent was fifteen years ago. Billboards strike me as being more driven by its theme than its story, maybe a little too much so. This is a movie that feels at times anti-Hollywood and then it’s characters often end up in perfect convenient places at just the right possible moments. Still, just when I thought the plot was going to lose itself in comfortable contrivance, it didn’t. And at times it felt as though the characters were on the verge of descending into existential madness. And then they didn’t. I would say the seesaw of comedy and violence, structure and anarchy didn’t quite work for me in the end.
When it was over I felt more dizzy and exhausted than anything else, aware that I’d just watched something memorable but not quite sure it was for the right reasons. And maybe that was part of McDonagh’s point. Weeks now after watching it, I still find myself reaching for the movie’s meaning, as his characters were for their own. Maybe the movies structured sections were saying there is a god, and rage and anger drive us from it. Maybe it was saying there isn’t, but our ability to love is entropy’s necessary counterforce. Or maybe it was none of that. Either way, I think it says something about the movie that it still makes me want to reach at all. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri