TIFF FILM REVIEW: THREE BILLBOARDS Is A Dark Humor Analysis of Our Lesser, and Our Better, Instincts
One takes for granted, at times, the existence of community and civilization, of people banding together to help in need and protect each other from the savage elements of our world. It takes perhaps a post-apocalyptic TV show about zombies to remind us how frail that convenient arrangement can be at times, or, in this case, a thoughtful movie like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film broaches that and other topics about human interaction—violence begets violence, everyone has a good and a bad side. And even though most are analyzed superficially, yielding instead to the dark humor that permeates and dominates the conversation, it is nevertheless a provocative and thoughtful exercise about the human condition.
When we encounter Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), several months have passed since the brutal rape and murder of her teenage daughter in the eponymous city in the South, and she is ready to take matters into her own hands. Driving past three dilapidated road signs, she commissions them to state: “Raped while dying. And still no arrests. How come Chief Willoughby?” Her gesture is provocative enough to this tranquil little town that it sets in motion a sequence of events—sometimes violent, sometimes moving—that is mostly absurd and unbelievable, but somehow manages to stir something in you about what it all means.
Chief Willoughby is the Sheriff of the town, played by Woody Harrelson with his usual drawl and bravado. His main underling is Office Dixon, Sam Rockwell doing his best autistic/white trash impersonation, in what seems to be a common theme in these years’ films. Lucas Hedges, another mainstay at film festivals these days, is Mildred’s son Robbie, mostly embarrassed at his mother’s in-your-face ways, and Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage plays the self-professed town midget James, with a small but crucial role in the evolving plot.
And though the setup sounds serious, perhaps boarding such thoughtful topics as police incompetence, sexual brutality, and criminal justice, the script by director Martin McDonagh (known for dark humor pieces like In Bruges), urges you to take its laughter more serious than its punch. This all the while that fire and blood, like a cocktail straight from hell, punctuate scene after scene, jarring you nowhere nearly as much as the politically incorrect invective that the various characters spew against each other.
Very purposefully so, Three Billboards is squarely a Trump-era film. It looks at rural white America, at the tortured relationship of its residents with the police and the pervasive distrust thereof, at loud women in power, at the anxieties of the flailing middle class, and at collective, small town mentality anger. But it touches upon all these topics without ever admitting that it is doing so, letting the characters and the jokes—at times offensive, at times amusing—speak for themselves. James the midget speaks of using the “little boys” room, and Office Dixon warns that he does not beat up n***rs anymore, he only beats up “colored folk.”
So it is that most of the town rallies behind Chief Willoughby, balking at Mildred’s steps to upend the civilized order. In one of the film’s least subtle moments, Mildred (with a brilliant, evocative McDormand in the lead) explains that the billboards are her own coping mechanism for the loss of her daughter, that she does not even blame the actually somewhat diligent Chief.
Three Billboards is asking you, nay, urging you, in essence, to think from the other perspective. It insists that there are no good guys and there are no bad guys, but only everything in between with one or two secondary character exceptions. All of the main players here act abhorrently, shockingly so at times, while also evoking tremendous sympathy and boundless pity. They all bear their own crosses, it is the burden of living together in those small-knit but troubled communities that still somehow have to support each other. Everyone is good, but everyone is also evil.
It works because both McDormand and Rockwell are masters at range acting—not something that one can usually say about Harrelson, for example, but he recedes in the second half. You may have political proclivities—either towards the cop or towards the suffering woman—but you will abandon them by the time the credits roll and be forced to reexamine your own prejudices while scoffing at the characters’. That McDonaugh and his cast achieved this with unconventional and even realistically violent humor (this ain’t a Tarantino film), is quite remarkable. It is only too bad that the insistence at analyzing their subjects from another angle leads to a somewhat superficial understanding of the whole—no answers are provided and that does not seem quite purposeful, but at least the hardest questions are raised.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a gripping film, a surprising story that challenges you at every turn while disclaiming responsibility for its own actions and refusing to fall into the land of the preachy or of the wise. It simply is, mostly like its characters, complex and undefinable. And also just a tad bit ridiculous.