Movie Notes: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri




Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Directed by Martin McDonagh. With Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell

Humans are creatures that create value. One person may find throwing trash on the ground in a public place intolerable but have little problem treating an employee or co-worker as a means to their own advancement. Another may find fatherhood or motherhood their highest calling investing most of their life energy to the task but give little thought to being cruel to a server at a restaurant or a pet dog. Sometimes our values in one area of our lives seem entirely incongruous with the values we hold in another area and the incongruity can strike others as downright bizarre. This value incongruity is a theme in other writer/director Martin McDonagh’s films but is a central focus in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The movie is about a distraught mother who works to “focus the mind” of what to her is a complacent police chief (played with vigor by Woody Harrelson) who has failed her. Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) daughter has been raped and killed and after a year, no suspects have been arrested. In an act of desperation and anger, she pays to have two questions and a statement posted to three billboards near her home each implicating the Ebbing police department and it’s chief of police in particular for inaction and perhaps incompetence. The billboards polarize the town and turn over rocks, as it were, causing all sorts of nefarious and violent things to crawl to the surface. McDonagh deals with themes of abuse, intolerance, bias, authority, revenge, and despair and while these certainly are present throughout the film, I never felt the film was really about these themes. Rather, these form the backdrop for a more dominant theme: the cognitive biases and dissonance we exhibit as humans that give our lives an incongruity about what we value and how we express those values.

Mildred clearly is a mother experiencing despair and tremendous anger about her loss. And rightly so. A victim of an abusive husband who she divorced, Mildred works as a clerk in a trinket store trying to raise two kids on a meager wage. These circumstances certainly would be grounds for bitterness and anger though don’t really explain the degree to which Mildred seems to possess them. Then in a single flashback we see Mildred’s harshness and anger present in a conversation she has with her son and daughter ostensibly on the day her daughter is killed. “I hope I get raped on the way!” her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) screams after Mildred refuses to let her take the only family vehicle forcing her to walk to an undisclosed location. “I hope you get raped on the way too!” Mildred screams back as Angela walks out the door. This is not something we imagine even an angry mother would say on her worst day. She’s vindictive, angry, and immature and yet at the same time, tough, determined and passionate. This is a woman we both deeply admire and pity. We want her to win yet we agonize over her loneliness and rage.

(Incidentally, I asked an Irish friend of mine to give me feedback on this review before it went to press. His comment after on the above paragraph is insightful. He said, “Ireland is full of hard/harsh loving mothers. The mother is also the center of Irish society and we would all believe in the unlimited tenacity of these crazy, ragged characters.” This illustrated to me a deeper dichotomy in a character like Mildred than a simple caricature can and should portray and it’s a helpful call out. The line between hard and tough or between obsessive and passionate can truly be thin and partly in the eye of the beholder.)

McDonagh then presents a woman who values finding her daughter’s killer at any cost. There is a shadow cast over her determination and mental and physical toughness: she thinks very little of being cruel to almost everyone, causing emotional and psychological harm to her son, endangering lives, damaging property, and becoming truly isolated even from those who wish to help and love her all for this single goal. Few have experienced loss of the type Mildred has experienced and while we might imagine the rage we would feel, it’s not possible to know it truly. Mildred’s dissonance is extreme and perhaps for good reason. But we all possess this type of incongruity. The result is the good that may come from upholding the single value becomes offset by the abuse of all other values.

This is illustrated through the lives of principle characters in the film. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) gives very little thought to physically assaulting a citizen or verbally assaulting people of a different color (or size) in his duty to protect and serve the population of Ebbing. In a state of despair over the loss of a somewhat noble colleague, he says to himself “I know that the best thing, the only thing, to honor that man’s memory right now, is to go to work; is to be a good cop. To walk in his shoes and do what he did every day of his life. Help people.” He says this just before he walks out of the police department, proceeds across the street to beat up a completely innocent citizen and throw him out of a two-story window in a rage. In the scene that follows, he is shown bragging to other officers of his act as if he believes the act itself was an example of “being a good cop;” of “helping people.” He has an extreme form of cognitive dissonance where the singular value of destroying those who he deems unworthy of his colleague’s memory comes at the cost of actually protecting and serving those he vowed to protect and serve. The incongruity is at the same time humorous, shocking, and bizarre and we’re made to feel it.

McDonagh, though born in England, is a child of blue-collar, Irish parents who left Ireland to look for work and gave birth to Martin shortly after the start of the recent 30-year clash that pitted the Nationalists against the Unionists. While McDonagh himself most likely would not have experienced the conflict in Ireland directly, he no doubt would have felt the effects of The Troubles through his parents and frequent visits to his home country. A dual citizen of Ireland and England, it seems his heart belongs to Ireland. Many of his plays are set in Ireland and it appears he even took an artistic stand related to the effects of the conflict (read more about this in his biography here). I raise this only because I suspect that McDonagh’s focus in this movie may partially be influenced (consciously or unconsciously) by hostilities that occurred in his home country during his formative years. The ideas that fuel conflicts like these are supposedly focused on making life better for the people involved but, in the process, tear those same lives apart. The focus on achieving an end regardless of the cost runs the risk of destroying the people who would benefit from the outcome. This is incongruous—as incongruous as the behavior of the principle characters in Three Billboards. (Of course, McDonagh wouldn’t have to return to his Irish roots to easily find such incongruity. The countries in which he now lives and works exhibit similar pathologies.)

A scene in the movie might lend credence to my suspicions. Mildred returns home one day to find a Catholic priest sitting at her kitchen table talking to her son. The priest tries to tell Mildred that while the town is with her in her desire to find her daughter’s killer, they are against her posting the billboards. Mildred’s response is indicative of this meta-narrative I’m claiming exists in the movie and I post her response to the priest at length here to illustrate the point:

You know what I was thinking about today? I was thinking about those street gangs they had down in Los Angeles, those Crips and those Bloods. And I was thinking about that bunch of new laws they came up with in the 1980’s, I think it was, to combat those street gangs, those Crips and those Bloods. And, if I remember rightly, the gist of what those new laws were saying was, if you join one of these gangs, and you’re running with them, and down the block one night, unbeknownst to you, one of your fellow Crips, or your fellow Bloods, shoot up a place, or stab a guy, well then, even though you didn’t know nothing about it, and even though you may’ve just been standing on a street corner minding your own business, what these new laws said was you’re still culpable. You’re still culpable, by the very act of having joined those Crips or those Bloods in the first place. Which got me thinking, Father, that whole type of situation is kind of like you church boys, ain’t it? You got your colors, you got your clubhouse. You’re, for want of a better word, a gang. And if you’re upstairs smoking a pipe and reading a bible while one of your fellow gang members is downstairs fucking an altar boy, well, Father, just like those Crips and just like those Bloods, you’re culpable. Because you joined the gang, man. I don’t care if you never did shit, you never saw shit, you never heard shit, you joined the gang, you’re culpable. And when a person is culpable to altar-boy-fucking, or any kinda boy-fucking, because I know you guys didn’t really narrow that down, then they kinda forfeit the right to come into my house and say anything about me, or my life, or my daughter, or my billboards. So, why don’t you just finish your tea there, Father, and get the fuck outta my kitchen.

While McDonagh, whose parents sent his him and his brother to Roman Catholic schools as children, is attempting to level an obvious polemic against abuses in the Catholic church, there is a clear subtext here, one having to do with gangs and sides, and the inconsistency and bizarre ethics of claiming to care about “the depth of people’s feelings” while at the same time failing to deal with atrocities happening under the noses of the church leadership (and it shouldn’t be lost on the viewer that the setting in which this dialogue takes place is a dark room where the priest is sitting alone with her teenage son). In this film, no one escapes the dichotomy. This film is about all of us in one way or another and how ideology can blind us to the inconsistencies and sometimes abuses we engage in to support those ideologies.

Because the film attempts to plumb the depths of this dysfunction, it’s dark. Still, it never feels gloomy. The main action happens in the bright, mid-west [California] sunlight and McDonagh keeps the energy of the actors high and engaged so the film doesn’t feel depressing despite the intense and disturbing subject matter. The film is well made and worth watching for the quality of the acting alone. It’s violent (thankfully McDonagh spares us from having to watch the rape) but there are some genuinely funny moments such as the description of two people who supposedly complained about the billboards. Delivered perfectly by Sam Rockwell, officer Dixon describes them as: “a lady with a funny eye” and “a fat dentist.” And the conversation between a random (imaginary?) deer who grazes under the billboards and Mildred brought a smile to my face. Mildred tells the deer that the only food she has for it is “some Doritos” but it might kill the deer because the Doritos are “kinda pointy.” It’s oddball humor to be sure but what we should expect from the writer of Seven Psychopaths.
The movie isn’t perfect. Some things happen too quickly. Dixon is beyond doubt a cruel and bigoted man. These are not surface qualities but deep-seated, ingrained character flaws. Towards the end of the film he appears to become virtuous in an instant based on a single word from the chief. Granted, Dixon is portrayed as simple but even (especially?) in the simple, character flaws take time to undo and Dixon’s transformation doesn’t fit the general narrative the film is trying to get us to believe. Typical of modern films, there are no true heroes. But Three Billboards goes further. Ebbing Missouri is depicted as a town full of complacency and inaction. Severe violence happens in the open street at mid-day and no one steps in to help or even seems to care. This is a bit much even for those steeped in cynicism about red states.
Despite these minor flaws, the film is well made. It grinds some axes but not to the point of excess. This is a film that takes no sides and so ends up being a mirror into which we all can look and find ourselves even among the excess (I’m reminded here of Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, “To the deaf you shout, and to the almost blind you draw large, startling figures.”). It has the texture of Cohen brother’s film–particularly No Country for Old Men and while it may not have quite the technical excellence in terms of pacing and direction, it’s close enough to warrant the accolades its received.
A couple of people have asked me about the ending. I’m not quite sure what to say. It seems to run tangential to the rest of the film. We seem to be looking at a “Bonnie and Clyde” moment but then Mildred raises an ethical question that casts doubt that this is what we’re actually witnessing. Perhaps this is McDonagh’s final play at incongruity. Or maybe it’s a lot simpler than that. Maybe it’s just a sign of hope that things can be better if we just stop, think, and talk. Yes, let’s go with that.

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