' ' Cinema Romantico: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Monday, December 04, 2017

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is tending to some flowers she has planted the near the base of the three billboards giving “Three Billboards of Ebbing, Missouri” its title, faux-advertisements she has implemented to call out Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for failing to find the rapist and murderer of her daughter. As she does, a deer wanders up and Mildred entertains out loud the idea of this animal being a sign from God, even though to this point, and most points after, she seems more resigned to a barren, godless existence where people do rotten things to one another just because they can. And if McDormand’s fiercely committed stoicism sells the scene’s parting line meant to communicate a wavering in her rejection of faith, well, sorry, but I still didn’t buy that little deflection one bit.

In his two previous feature films, “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths”, writer/director Martin McDonagh has wrung empathy from unpleasant characters, but in “Three Billboards” he pushes his unpleasant characters to (past) the edge, actively daring us to turn the other cheek and like them. If Mildred initially seems to have the makings of a fiery hero, standing up to corrupt law enforcement, like racist, mama’s boy cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, laying it on thick), the script hacks away at that heroism. Sure, Mildred demonstrates a little love to a beetle, but she behaves so corrosively toward her daughter in a flashback that it, and myriad moments like it, indelicately suck all the air from the room, a recurring sensation that reveals McDonagh’s intentions as less about emphasizing character dimension than empty provocation.

That provocation is also evoked in the flowery, florid dialogue. Granted, some of these speeches, like Mildred’s blistering takedown of the Catholic priest who comes calling, are astonishing, incisive verbal assaults. And yet, if you place these various speeches side-by-side, and strain ever so slightly to hear past the talented actors’ differing voices, a distinct sameness nevertheless emerges in all these words, as if the screenwriter is communicating to us from on high rather than the characters actually speaking for themselves, an unfortunate sensation sapping the proceedings of so much spontaneity. That loss is crucial because in a movie where characters are intended to be motivated by emotional impulses rather than thought-through reason, they come across oddly programmed, existing only by design, a sensation permeating the whole movie.

Indeed, if McDonagh skillfully wove Bruges itself into “In Bruges”, making it a true supporting character, he hardly manages the same with Ebbing, which feels more like some sort of All-American stand-in, evinced by the Old Glory hanging in nearly every shot, from porches to back walls in bars, even popping up in window reflections, always there, like those news reports in “Killing Them Softly.” Despite the oft-solid set design the film nevertheless feels more like the chalk outlines of “Dogville” or the counterfeit cabin in “The Hateful Eight”, as if we have been airdropped into some filmmaker’s make-believe set.

You see this in how you don’t see any of the supposed town-wide loyalty to Sheriff Willoughby. We are merely told of the undying loyalty to Willoughby, just as we are merely told about the rampant racism within the police force while the movie itself deploys all its black characters as nothing more than pawns of the plot, and while McDonagh seems intent on exploring how women are to get along in a domineering male-dominated world he writes his few female supporting parts as useless airheads, even finding twisted joy in having one of them punched in the face. The latter moment is particularly grotesque, just popping up in the midst of Dixon’s most horrifying act, for which there is oddly no real-world comeuppance, which isn’t so much me playing Plausibility Police as noting how “Three Billboards” itself exists in its own fantasyland, apart from the consequences it pretends to impart, shock value superseding significance again and again.

This becomes more glaring the further the movie goes and its various plot points lock into place. As everything seems to be barreling toward a certain act of vengeance wrapped up in an untraditional demonstration of forgiveness, McDonagh’s script suddenly tacks in another direction, wiping that clean conclusion off the board, taking a turn for nihilism rather than certainty. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” wants to believe that nothing really make sense, when the movie’s homogenous dialogue, lack of place and overly calibrated plot winds up resembling exactly the opposite.

No comments: