Our Favourite Films: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

three billboards indexIntensely comic and dramatic, it’s the perfect vehicle for drama heavyweight Frances McDormand and ‘sometimes goofy guy’ Sam Rockwell to stretch their Oscar worthy skills.

When I first read a version of the script (which was quite close to the film), I did not expect it to be such a compelling read. There’s also the knowledge that execution (the finished film) would not live up to what the screenplay has built up (like what happened to ‘On the Basis of Sex‘). Thankfully that did not happen. Just like getting someone to eat healthier or stop smoking, it’s really not possible to tell a good story if there is a lesson you’re hell bent on getting the viewer to have. Epiphanies happen outside of our control. I’m not sure if there are people who walked out of the cinema going: I should really get a hold of my anger before it spirals out of control. I hope there were, and that’s good news for this particular film. But it usually doesn’t happen that way. We have to leave it up to the person viewing a painting or listening to the lyrics of a song to make their on mind on how it applies to them (if it does at all).

During the opening minutes, we are introduced to the protagonist, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), then later the antagonist, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). We feel for Mildred because she has not been able to give the best environment for her kids to thrive in. Since she has her own issues to sort out, and raising an adolescent is going to be ten times as difficult as her reflexive responses end up being a projection of her own frustrations towards her rebellious daughter. As for Dixon, he’s not the sort of cop who would drive to the nearest art gallery or have a print of Jackson Pollock hanging in his living room. In the wrong hands the pacing would have suffered and we would likely have been fed all that information. The beauty of this film is Martin McDonagh just gives us enough information: Mildred sees the billboards, goes to rent them, Dixon sees the wordings on the billboards and calls his boss.

The Setup: Distraught on what to do to find justice for her daughter’s case, Mildred decides to rent out three billboards that haven’t been used for close to 20 years in hopes that it would spur publicity and catch her daughter’s killer. Specifically she names the station’s chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), as the person who needs to take action. I expected Willoughby’s visit to Mildred’s house to be about intimidation (this film is ‘MA’ after all), but got a surprise and it turns out he wants to find out who did it as well.

The Inciting Incident: Willoughby dies. I thought about this, and if Bill hadn’t died Dixon might not have gone after Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) and Mildred would have run out of funds for renting out the billboards. There’s also the likelihood that the story would have gone in a whole different direction and wouldn’t have likely have brought the right chain of events to have even come close to arriving towards the ending that we’ve gotten.

My favourite part of the film was when Mildred softens towards Willoughby when he accidentally coughs up blood in her face. Knowing what the single mother is capable of (like spitting at someone’s face and not faltering when Dixon tries to bait her), it was a big surprise to see her sudden change of demeanour. A close second would be Mildred telling Charlie (John Hawkes), that he should be good to Penelope (Samara Weaving), his current partner. It comes out as a threat (as she was considering clocking him with a wine bottle just moments before uttering the words), but with the undertones of an olive branch. Their shared past (tumultuous and painful) is there, yet she’s allowing him to start anew with someone else. Basically, an echo on how Martin manages to balance all the pieces (Mildred is close to getting some sort of closure about her own pain), and it makes sense why it can easily be a template of how to tell a good story. Edits are done (seemingly effortlessly) by Jon Gregory which doesn’t leave viewers confused in which part they are in the story. Honourable mention goes to when Willoughby apologies to his kids after using strong language during his conversation with Dixon.

I do scratch my head when terms like ‘hero‘ is thrown around rather than simply protagonist and antagonist. For example in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ Fred Rogers is actually the antagonist and Lloyd Vogel (an amalgamated character based on Tom Junod) is the protagonist. It’s probably just me wanting a simpler division between character roles, or maybe not wanting a rigid definition on who could be one or the other (heroic or not).

Comedic Moments:

  • Dixon failing to get information about the billboards as they are being put up.

  • Mildred failing to plausibly deny that she was at the dentist.

  • Willoughby expressing his distaste to Dixon’s approach to referring to people when collecting statements.

  • Penelope’s observations and clarifications

  • Denise (Amanda Warren) adding a frowning face to her sticky note to Mildred (We are also left to imagine the kind of comedy that ensued when she was able to outsmart Dixon to be able to leave the note or that Dixon might have even left the note himself realising that he has to get the message somehow.)

  • Mildred’s reply to Dixon after he reveals that he was responsible for the destruction of the billboards

  • Denise trying to keep up with new developments in Mildred’s life

It saddens me to find out that the sections of the film that were more story points than gags are judged by viewers based on the kind of people who find them funny (I certainly didn’t and don’t see myself wanting to spend time with those who do). Because based on what I watched, I didn’t feel like there were any sort of permissiveness. By choosing to tell this story, I didn’t think that Martin McDonagh, Frances McDormand, or Sam Rockwell were saying that it’s okay to be a ‘little racist’ or that those afflicted with a terminal disease should fly off to Switzerland to arrange to be euthanised. I was actually quite surprised that brawls didn’t erupt in cinemas when aggressive Social Justice Warriors (SJW) attempted to send a message that it isn’t appropriate to laugh at another person’s expense (like those who have various forms of dwarfism). What does worry me is that Martin is saying that Mildred is the kind of person that young ones should aim to emulate. I don’t agree that anger is a valid excuse to be unkind towards others.

Comedy is fraught with misinterpretation, which is why in the documentary ‘Dying Laughing‘, a number of comics talk about instances where there was aggression aimed towards them. I don’t spend time in that scene just because there is only a few number who appeal to my humour blueprint. What I can comment on is my struggle to show empathy to those who think that sarcasm is funny. It’s something that’s designed to inflict pain, and there is little to convince me that type of approach is healthy for society to thrive.

Martin McDonagh’s proves his ability to craft characters that are truly multidimensional. The immediate assumptions of people who behave contrary to a code of conduct is that they are sociopaths. I could understand the appeal to voters for the Academy Awards, because in its simplest form, it is about two people driven by anger because they don’t feel seen. Though they don’t continually shout at the people around them. We could see that their actions yell out: “I matter. Don’t you see me? Couldn’t you hear me?”.Not to mention the attention to detail on how the characters look. One example I’ve noticed during rewatches is Mildred changing hair. It’s probably at its most aggressive in the poster (short hair sticking out in all sorts of directions). Though in terms of anger being the theme of the film, her hair echoes the amount of anger she unleashes towards those around her. The opening scene has her with her hair down, with a bandanna as she drives past the completed billboards with Robbie, then with short hair in a pony tail and half of the back has been cropped really close.

Performance-wise, none really get the award of ‘the slouch’. I had previously seen Lucas Hedges and Kathryn Newton play siblings in ‘Ben Is Back’, so to get that revelation (since they only share one scene together) that they have the same connection in this gives me a bit of familiarity. I looked through Caleb Landry Jones’ filmography and the only familiar title is ‘American Made’ and he was pretty effective in playing problem adolescent, JB. Somehow as Red, he plays someone older but at the same time fragile. As for Kerry Condon it took looking at her IMDB page for me to be reminded that she plays Stacey the widow of Mike Ehrmantraut’s son in ‘Better Call Saul’. Pamela is so far from the ‘tough as nails’ persona Stacey projects when she clashes with Mike which is a signal to me how much range Kerry has. Not only that, I now wonder which of those two characters are closest to who she is as a person.

Looking at the best way to describe the film itself, I wouldn’t exactly go with the term ‘tragicomedy‘, as that signals to me a version of ‘House of Sand and Fog’ could be written with a comedic slant to it. It probably could have, and I do wonder if its the lack of comedy that resulted in what I was left with while watching the end credits roll by. Yes, there is tragedy that happens within the story in ‘Three Billboards…’, yet I’m not left with that empty shell of emotion. Somehow, there is hope within all the pain. It likely has to do with the protagonist and antagonist not having a typical relationship (good versus evil), enough to have viewers consider someone else (or something else) as the antagonist rather than Dixon.

This is probably the darkest I would go in terms of comedic material. If you haven’t ventured out into ‘MA’ viewing (or learned your lesson that there are a few films that would match your viewing tastes), then you can do a 10-minute test on it before making a decision whether it is right for you or not. My hope is that you don’t base your decisions on those people who still yet have to learn about inclusion (that bullying behaviour also includes laughing at jokes in expense of others) and instead what you see and hear on screen.

Leigh Lim.
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