22 December 2017

Ebbing begets flowing

On the ebbs and flows of Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Mildred Hayes is the kind of small town person I often wish I could be. And every small town likely has one of these people already and anyway, that one who is mostly ridiculed as a loose cannon, a rabble rouser, or a combination of whatever comes to mind when you're a local townsperson unwilling to deal with having your peace and quiet disrupted. I so want to speak my mind sometimes. But I fear the ensuing backlash. I fear the effect my cause might release.

And Mildred has a good reason to shake things up. She's bitterly angry. Her daughter, Angela, was brutally raped and murdered almost a year ago, and the local police have let the case go cold. She wants to pick a fight, and she does so in grand fashion, a message spread across three billboards that sit on a forgotten highway on the edge of town. 

Knowing small rural towns like Ebbing, Missouri, itself the main character of Martin McDonagh's masterful new film "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri," is key to this movie's success. At times it almost feels like a setting in more of a literary sense, a place not so much realistic but as representative of the experience of Small Town, America. A place built of people full of darkness only lightened by their willingness to fake it. It's no wonder writer-director Martin McDonagh has a character reading Flannery O'Connor. Her best work is about the causes and effects of violence that seeps out from the facades of "good" people. 

Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, in her best role in years, thinks why not use these broken down billboards near my house for good. Her good being putting the much-loved Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) back to work on her daughter's case. She is angry and honest and so are her billboards. He is realistic and reassuring, with a pretty wife and two young daughters at home, and just has trouble breaking back into a case that is simply full of dead ends. She would have him go drawing blood from every man in America. He would remind her about the Civil Rights laws that protect people from that. Both of them want the same thing. Neither of them may ever get what they want. And that's another reason this movie is so great. It is not about answers, solutions, or payoffs. It is about what makes people tick in the wake of tragedy. 

To make matters more interesting, and timely, is the police force's resident dimwit mama's boy, Jason Dixon, played, in the best performance of the year, by Sam Rockwell. And Dixon is easily the most important movie character of the year. He inspires rage and sympathy often at the same moment. Rage for his behavior. Sympathy for it too. Rockwell's talents have been known for years and years, but people I talk to barely know his name. I am in his camp for any Oscar they may be willing to give him. His reactions are impeccable, in his eyes and facial expressions, as this is fully lived-in character work. He alone makes any criticism of this movie's shifting tones completely moot. His Officer Dixon is the one known for his recent suspension for using excessive force on a Black suspect... because he is racist. And he is. But he's not mean about it. He's angry just the same, and he's a dimwit mama's boy who loves Chief Willoughby and thinks playing cop is the same as being cop. And here McDonagh's film takes shape. How can we make sense of tragedy? How can we make sense of this type of tragedy? How can we come to understand such a man? Can he redeem himself? 

And the three billboards do their trick. They shake things up. They get the fat dentist worked up. They get Mildred's teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), and her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), good and riled up, just the same as Chief Willoughby and Officer Dixon and the parish priest and the kids at the high school and the local news station for whom Mildred has many streams of hilariously obscene insults. Officer Dixon and the billboard company salesman, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) and Mildred and the town's resident little person, James (Peter Dinklage) shoot pool at the local watering-hole, they raise their longnecks and toast their anger at the world. The next day they fight. Then, they forgive. Then, they fight some more. 

The dynamic between Chief Willoughby and Mildred first projects this sort of ability small town people have to hate and love each other simultaneously. Then, things shift unexpectedly to Mildred and the Officer Dixon character and his reliance on aggression and violence and the movie, in very meta fashion, "ebbs" and flows back and forth between pain and anger and brilliant dark humor, both stemming from the wit of Martin McDonagh as a screenwriter. 

I find it funny that several big critics have come out so harshly against this movie for that very reason. That is can't decide to be one thing or this other thing is a bad thing. It's just so not, and I can tell that these critics simply haven't lived in a small town in a very long time, if ever. There is comedy in our pain and violence in our tragedy and love for our enemies and the ability to come to understandings. 

There is a bit of time in the last act of the "Three Billboards..." that feels dragged out, like McDonagh isn't sure where to end, but this is a story that doesn't really rely on an ending. This story actually can't end because its a story about something much deeper than one film could manage, the everyday experience of angry people in the muddled up country that is America right now. Clearly, we needed an Irishman like McDonagh to show us the light and make it okay that we don't know what to do next. 

In one of the film's funniest scenes, the ex-husband character, Charlie, happens to be at the same restaurant with his new "19-year-old girlfriend" as Mildred attempts a first date with Peter Dinklage's James. He reminds them: "All this anger, man, it just begets greater anger," and there is some play with the word "begets." Cause and effect is the primary concern of this movie. One thing happens and begets this thing which begets this other thing and so on. And then you have a beer at the local watering hole, say your obscenity laden peace, and go on to the next thing. Maybe that thing won't even work. 

Maybe peace isn't for such an angry world. 

"Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri" - Five Stars/A+

Side Note: The trailer for this movie is the best of the year. It spoils absolutely nothing (Thank Heavens!) and is a brilliant work of art for that reason alone. That it is itself also really fun to watch is a bonus.

For some great movie blogging, check out what movies some of my friends are most excited about in 2018:

Dell on Movies

Surrender to the Void

Mettel Ray

Rambling Film

Dancin' Dan on Film

A Film a Day by Sonia


  1. Definitely one of the best films of the year so far as I too am hoping for an Oscar nod for Sam Rockwell.

  2. I heard the title before, but had no clue what it was about. Now I'm hoping I get to see it soon. Great review.

    And thanks for the link!

    1. Definitely a necessary watch from this year. No problem!

  3. Easily one of my favorites of the year. I gave it the same grade you did. I thought the ending fit perfectly, though I know it bothered a lot of people. I thought he was smart about it.

  4. Great review! I can't wait to see it.

    Thanks for the link!

  5. Great review!

    This is definitely in my top 5 of the year. Frances McDormand's performance is definitely her best since Fargo. Sam Rockwell's performance is phenomenal, & I truly hope he wins the Oscar. And Martin McDonagh's screenplay is a true work of brilliance. I also have to praise Carter Burwell's excellent score. I did love the ending. Amy Annelle's cover of Buckskin Stallion Blues made me love it so much.

    1. Thanks!

      Loved it for all of the reasons you stated.