Saturday, February 24, 2018

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri": review

[WARNING: SPOILERS!]

Watching a string of films can often lead to déjà vu when cast members from previous films show up in the film you're currently watching. This was the case for me when I watched "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" last night: Peter Dinklage has a minor-but-crucial role in this film; I just saw him in "The Station Agent." And I just saw Caleb Landry Jones (Banshee in "X-Men: First Class") in "The Florida Project."

People seem to be coming away from "Three Billboards" with very different takes on what the movie is and is about. For some, this film is highly religious; for others, this movie isn't religious but is quite humanistic. Religious-studies student that I am, I fall on the side of religious, but mainly because I see certain religious themes, not religious allegory, as the above-linked Andrew Klavan does (Klavan sees Woody Harrelson's character, Police Chief Willoughby, as a stand-in for a harsh-but-merciful God).

"Three Billboards" is largely the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, looking bleak and angry), a mother with a son named Robbie (Lucas Hedges, recently seen in "Lady Bird," come to think of it) and a teenaged daughter named Angela (Kathryn Newton). When the movie begins, Angela has been dead for seven months: she was raped and killed by a still-unknown assailant, and the police have said nothing to Mildred during that time. Fed up with the silence, which Mildred perceives as lazy inaction, the angry mother sells her ex-husband's truck and puts down money to set up a three-part message on three billboards just outside of town along a little-used road. The billboards say:

• Raped While Dying
• And Still No Arrests?
• How Come, Chief Willoughby?

While the townspeople understand Mildred's grief, they are incensed by what they see as an extremely unfair accusation bordering on libel. Chief Willoughby, a kind individual, wonders how Mildred can be so harsh even though the police chief is known to be dying of pancreatic cancer. Mildred fires back by saying the billboards wouldn't be as effective if she were to put them up after the chief had "croaked."

Working alongside Willoughby is his team of cops, including Jason Dixon (normally trim Sam Rockwell with a shocking beer gut and fat ass), a dim-bulb good ol' boy who is casually racist, and who may or may not have tortured a black suspect once. Dixon wants the billboards taken down because he sees them as impugning the whole police department, but given the careful wording of the text on the billboards ("How come, Chief Willoughby?" is a question, which is hard to paint as libel), no legal action can be taken to bring the signs down.

Mildred's son Robbie, meanwhile, is suffering from depression and bouts of anger. He's embarrassed by his mother's behavior, and it's implied that he's being teased at school. Chief Willoughby has a family, too: his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and their two little daughters. Anne is a marginal presence in the film at first, but she gradually moves toward the center after a series of terrible events.

The events start small. Willoughby brings Mildred in after Mildred has an altercation with the dentist, using the dentist's drill to puncture his thumbnail after he starts talking about how the townspeople sympathize with Chief Willoughby. Mildred deftly points out to Chief Willoughby that there were no witnesses to what exactly happened inside the dental clinic, meaning it's the dentist's word against hers. Someone burns down the words posted on the three billboards (the arsonist turns out to be Mildred's abusive ex Charlie [John Hawkes], who is now dating an empty-headed nineteen-year-old named Penelope [Samara Weaving]), and after Chief Willoughby accidentally coughs blood onto Mildred during her interrogation, he decides to spend a day of celebration with his wife and family before shooting himself in the head inside the family's horse stable.

Everything changes at this point. The town is ready to blame Mildred for Chief Willoughby's death, as they feel her billboards (which she has had restored because the original build crew kept spare images) pushed the chief to suicide. The police officers under Willoughby, including the oafish Dixon, are devastated at the news of his death, and the station's ambiance changes once Willoughby's replacement, the decidedly black Chief Abercrombie, steps in and immediately fires Dixon. Another catalyst for change throughout the town comes in the form of a set of letters that Chief Willoughby had written just before his suicide. One letter goes to his wife Anne, in which he expresses his love for her, his desire to spare her the agony of his deterioration through cancer, and his hope that she will remember and cherish their final family outing together. A second letter goes to Mildred, in which he tells her that his suicide has nothing to do with the billboards, and that he paid $5000 to keep her messages up another month because he was amused at the thought that she would have to deal with the townspeople's ire. A third and final letter goes to Dixon, whom Willoughby calls a basically good man who needs to learn that, if he truly wishes to become a detective, he needs to have love in his heart. Dixon is deeply moved by this message, but unfortunately, he reads it while inside the darkened police station at the very moment when Mildred has decided to torch the place with Molotov cocktails. Dixon manages to escape the inferno with severe burns and with Angela Hayes's case file: he is now determined to solve the murder.

Where the movie goes after these crucial turning points is something I'd rather not spoil, even though I know I've already revealed two-thirds of the film. Is the movie religious in tone? I think it is: it deals with questions like justice, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy. It even brings up something akin to the ancient religious idea of the scapegoat—that onto which the sins and anger of a village are piled before the scapegoat is run out of town.

Speaking of tone: "Three Billboards" is being listed as a drama, but the dialogue and situations are often hilarious. I began to wonder, while I was watching the movie, whether the story was meant to be some sort of black comedy. I'd call the movie more of a dramedy than a drama. In line with that, I was impressed by the comic timing of everyone involved: Frances McDormand is hilariously biting; Woody Harrelson makes us smile with his mixture of kindness and cynicism; Sam Rockwell, who has the thankless task of playing a Northerner's stereotype of a Southerner, comes off as comically tone-deaf until the moment he has his metanoia. There's been some controversy about the change that comes over Rockwell's Dixon, but I think the controversy has to do with whether you can imagine people changing or not. People who can't imagine such a deep change occurring will have trouble with Dixon.

Although I was left a bit confused by the movie's tone, I appreciated its mature openness to interpretation. The story can be approached from many different angles, and like the dark-side tree/cave in "The Empire Strikes Back," what you take out of the experience of watching "Three Billboards" has everything to do with what you take with you into the experience. Overall, I found the movie a worthwhile view—thought-provoking, heartfelt, populated with colorful characters, and worthy of discussion with close friends.



1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

Several of the movies you have reviewed lately show just how far Hollywood's influence has waned. While they are decently constructed films, their lack of box office appeal showcases the fact that most films were once viewed as a way to leave our problems behind for a couple of hours of escapist entertainment. The ability of "Star Wars" to take us to faraway galaxies shows why it can still draw in 20% of the U.S. population while message films like "Lady Bird" and "Three Billboards" struggle to pull in 1.5% at $8.97 a ticket. No wonder why most of my students (and friends) are forgoing movies for video games that are a bigger bang for their buck as they can take a very long time to complete. There's also the facts that one game can be played and shared by many and you're not being beaten over the head with messages that you may not agree with or those that espouse them.

And with so few people actually viewing films these days, it might help explain why box office receipts no longer take into account the actual number of tickets sold as that would really shine a light on the situation and might possibly explain how the media was so wrong about the election of Hillary Clinton...err...Donald Trump to the presidency.