Sunday, January 7, 2018

Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

We finally saw Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri yesterday. This is the much praised new film by Martin McDonagh. This is McDonagh's third feature film. We saw the first two: In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). (Thanks to our son Geoff for pointing us at In Bruges.) Those films, particularly In Bruges, were both excellent -- twisty and blackly funny and intelligent and involving. Three Billboards is also brilliant -- indeed, it's his best film, I think. It can be described in the same terms I used above except it's not twisty -- and it is emotionally stunning in a way the first two films really aren't.

Some of this is acting. Three Billboards stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell. McDormand is getting tremendous Oscar buzz, and she deserves it, but one shouldn't slight Harrelson and Rockwell, who are both exceptional. (I should mention that McDormand and Rockwell, in particular, are two of my favorite actors.)

The story is in its way fairly simple. McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, whose daughter Angela was raped and murdered some months prior to the film's action. The crime is unsolved, and she decides to put up a series of billboards near the murder site, stating: "Raped While Dying"/"Still No Arrests"/"How Come, Chief Willoughby?". Her grief and rage are understandable, but her placement of blame is utterly unfair -- the police department has done their best (possibly somewhat limited by small town resources), but the crime is simply one of those that may be beyond resolution.

The story turns more on the local reaction to the billboards, which is mostly negative -- indeed, as much an overreaction as Mildred's blame of Chief Willoughby. Willoughby (played by Harrelson) is an honorable man, with a beautiful Australian (?) wife and two young daughters. And he's dying of cancer. His reaction to the billboards is composed partly of anger at Mildred's unfair criticism of him, but it's blended with compassion for her situation, and a lot of tolerance for her actions (which include some outright criminality). The rest of the town is less forgiving, harassing her teenaged son, harassing her African American boss -- and her dentist even tries to pull her teeth without novacaine. The hostility extends to the advertising firm that rented her the billboard space. Mildred's husband, who had left her for a 19-year-old not long before Angela's murder, is also upset at her -- for a constellation of reasons that go beyond the billboards, of course, and that intersect in ways that cause intense guilt in both of them -- Mildred especially.

I haven't mentoned the imost important character besides Mildred -- Jason Dixon (played by Rockwell) -- a frankly and violently racist cop. Willoughby doesn't approve of his actions, and reins him in when he can, but seems a step too tolerant, too sure he can bring out the good he's convinced Dixon has in him. But we learn, over time, that Dixon is a loser six ways from Sunday -- with the help of his quite awful mother. It's obvious that he takes out his personal shortcomings on anyone he can -- and somehow, between the writing and Rockwell's acting, we feel a bit for him -- even though we cheer his (much earned) downfall.

The movie has a couple of turning points -- an intensely moving development in Willoughby's life -- terrible crimes committed by both Jason Dixon and Mildred Hayes (in both case somewhat unpunished, at least by the justice system) -- and what seems a promising break in the Angela Hayes case. But it doesn't offer any easy answers, nor any real redemption or cathartic resolution. We are, it seems, urged to cheer for Mildred, but it becomes clear that she is essentially broken, simply too obsessed with revenge, and too willing to let her obsession smash anyone around her -- the basically good, like Willoughby and like her son; and the not so good, like Dixon and her ex-husband. Dixon is even more broken, and with less reason, but they end up literally in the same place, looking for someone to take their hate and anger out on who just might deserve it.

Are there faults? Of course there are. The biggest fault, I think, is the unconvincing portrayal of (fictional) Ebbing, Missouri. I'm a Missourian, so maybe I notice more -- but the location doesn't look like Missouri. (I would guess it's supposed to be set in the Ozarks, in a town maybe like Dexter or perhaps more like West Plains.) That's a nitpick (I believe the movie was shot in North Carolina, and it does look like that). But otherwise the town doesn't quite hold together -- the High School looks too big, the police station too small and old. There's a point where Dixon tries to explain to his Mother why white people can't just order blacks around like they used to -- "The South has changed", he says. But no one from Missouri would call it part of "the South". None of these faults really harm the overall movie -- but they do make it clear that it was written and directed by an Irishman who has possibly not even been to the state.

One thing that's really important in movies is music, and the music here is wonderful. (The music was coordinated by the great Carter Burwell, probably best known for his work with the Coen Brothers.) Best of all is the song that both opens and closes the movie: "Buckskin Stallion Blues", one of the incomparable Townes Van Zandt's greatest songs. The opening version is Van Zandt's original, the closing version is a lovely cover by a singer I had not known of before, but will listen to more now, Amy Annelle.

Bottom line: this is a wonderful, wrenching, movie. It had me in helpless tears at least twice. Granting that I haven't seen all the most praised movies of the year, I have this at the top of my list of 2017 movies (though The Shape of Water is pretty darn close).

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