Friday, November 17, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Signs of the Times?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for violence and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

This one’s not for the faint of heart.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s savagely dark assault on mainstream sensibilities is both a blistering burlesque and a painfully raw depiction of despair, frustration and unchecked rage. Much of this film obviously cannot — should not — be taken seriously; unfortunately, quite a lot also feels excruciatingly real.

Although troubled by the rather drastic step that Mildred (Frances McDormand) has taken,
in an effort to achieve closure regarding her daughter's long-unsolved murder, Police
Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) checks his emotions while explaining the
frustrating circumstances behind the case.
And not all that unlikely.

The film is powered by Frances McDormand’s sensational starring performance, an acting tour-de-force even more persuasive — more believably, subtly grounded, even within exaggerated circumstances — than her Academy Award-winning work in 1996’s Fargo. And I never, ever expected to write those words.

Her Mildred Hayes is wracked with grief and unresolved anger: a single mother pushed to the edge by her teenage daughter’s gruesome rape/murder, which remains unsolved after seven months. Fed up with what she perceives as investigative apathy, Mildred purchases messages on three long-unused billboards standing alongside the quiet road leading to her home.

The three-part message is a direct and controversial challenge to local police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

Many of the residents in bucolic Ebbings regard Mildred’s provocative act as profoundly unfair. Tellingly, Willoughby isn’t all that bothered. But second-in-command Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature, racist, violence-prone mama’s boy who wouldn’t know prudence if she kissed him, gets ugly. Repeatedly.

The subsequent unraveling of McDonagh’s vicious narrative is laden with revelations, which is much of the fun: You simply cannot anticipate the twists and U-turns, and there’s no sense trying.

Casting is the first surprise, because Harrelson has built his career — in great measure — on a series of unbalanced and even dangerous misanthropes; we naturally expect the same here. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that Willoughby is the story’s most rational, thoughtful and level-headed character: a decent man who wins our respect, because he responds to Mildred not with hostility, but kindness and sympathy.

It’s an absolutely cold case, he gently explains, after the billboards go up. No telling evidence. No DNA hits. Nada.

Harrelson exudes good-natured pragmatism and intelligence; he’s genuinely endearing. We all should be so lucky, to have such a thoughtful police chief.

Mildred is unconvinced; Willoughby acknowledges this as her right.

Unfortunately, Willoughby is as revered in Ebbing, as Harrelson is in this role. Mildred has ignited a conflagration — which was her intention — and the townsfolk quickly take sides. She doesn’t gain many converts, and the thin veneer of local civility crumbles quickly.

Missouri isn’t likely to appreciate McDonagh’s opinion of its “typical citizens,” even if Ebbing itself is a figment of the filmmaker’s imagination. We’re in solid Fargo territory here, with a gaggle of numb-nuts supporting characters who probably couldn’t float a three-digit IQ if they pooled scores. Many of these individuals are achingly funny; others are deeply disturbed. And disturbing.

Rockwell’s Dixon is a malevolent piece of work: a stunted man-child whose education progressed no further than comic books, and who views hassling people of color as the high point of his day. He no doubt tortured small animals as a child, probably encouraged by his white-trash mother (Sandy Martin, memorably malevolent), a piggy-eyed horror herself. She never moves from the couch or porch in the dilapidated house they share, and yet she may be the creepiest figure in this grotesque saga.

She has healthy competition, most notably from her son. Rockwell turns Jason’s incompetence into a weapon: He’s a waste of space who cares not a whit what the rest of the town thinks about him. Rockwell exudes flash-point intensity, like a fight-trained dog waiting to sink its teeth into the nearest victim.

Jason responds like a child, triggered more by Mildred’s insubordination and lack of respect — the nerve of her! — than her increasingly aggressive behavior.

Jason isn’t the town’s only unstable sociopath. John Hawkes exudes similar menace as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, an equally volatile brute who argues with his fists. Hawkes has become quite well known for such roles, most notably in 2010’s Winter’s Bone and 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Charlie is cut from that same scary cloth. And yet Charlie and Mildred clearly still love each other, despite her healthy unwillingness to tolerate his crap any further.

The dangerous corners of Charlie’s behavior are softened by his having hooked up with 19-year-old Penelope (Samara Weaving), a barely post-adolescent dim bulb who couldn’t put a seven-word sentence together if her life depended on it. We obviously shouldn’t make fun of intellectual under-achievers, and yet Weaving’s brief appearances are so spot-on hilarious, than we laugh until we cry.

Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), owner of the Ebbing Advertising firm that rents the billboards to Mildred, is a trifle smarter but not terribly savvy. At first viewing Mildred’s odd request as a cash windfall — to the tune of $5,000 per month — Red soon develops a grudging admiration for his client’s improbable, stick-it-to-the-man campaign. Unfortunately, that puts Red in Dixon’s crosshairs: a perilous development that Jones handles with stubborn — if increasingly ill-advised — pluck.

Peter Dinklage pops up as James, a local used car salesman with an unfulfilled attraction for Mildred: an unassuming blue-collar guy who meekly tolerates height jokes from Dixon and (no doubt) numerous other insensitive jerks. Zeljko Ivanek earns our sympathy as Cedric, the forever flustered police desk sergeant who repeatedly tries to broker peace between Dixon and everybody else.

Lucas Hedges, so memorable as the grief-stricken teenager in last year’s Manchester by the Sea, inhabits similar territory here as Mildred’s remaining child Robbie. But the emotional tone is completely different: We sense that Robbie views his mother’s obsession as mordantly amusing, even as he simultaneously lashes out over her disregard for his own emotional needs. It’s a delicate, complex role ... and completely typical of the finely nuanced performances that McDonagh coaxes from his performers.

This remains particularly true of McDormand’s work. There’s simply no way that Mildred should appear sympathetic, regardless of the righteousness of her cause ... and yet she does, because of the delicate shading McDormand gives the role. Mildred is a born hard-ass who nonetheless has a deep well of compassion that she tries to bury, but which tends to emerge unexpectedly: most strikingly during a tempestuous confrontation with Willoughby, at his police station.

That disarming shift in mood is one of McDonagh’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker: his ability to pull the rug out from beneath us, and to slide from serious to funny — from perilous to benign — in the blink of an eye.

McDonagh first demonstrated this gift in 2008’s unforgettable In Bruges, which somehow turned Colin Farrell’s novice mob assassin — introduced as he accidentally kills the most innocent of bystanders — into a sympathetic character. Very few filmmakers have made such impressive feature debuts.

The tech credits here are fine, and production designer Inbal Weinberg clearly had a good time contrasting the unkempt filth of Dixon’s house, and the fading charm of Mildred’s neglected home, with the attractive clutter of the tourist shop she runs with good friend Denise (Amanda Warren).

McDonagh employs music sparsely, blending Carter Burwell’s score with well-placed folk tunes such as Joan Baez’s cover of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and — mostly particularly — Townes Van Zandt’s enigmatic “Buckskin Stallion Blues.”

Three Billboards is not without flaws. Abbie Cornish may establish a charming rapport with Harrelson, as Willoughby’s wife Anne, but that doesn’t change the fact that the very Scottish actress looks and sounds wholly out of place. McDonagh also overplays his hand with an abrupt and ambiguous conclusion that some viewers may find tantalizing, but others will regard with the same contempt that greeted the final maddening scene of 1999’s aptly titled Limbo.

Regardless of this film’s shot at mainstream success — which seems unlikely — it’ll long be remembered for a number of reasons, not least of which is McDormand’s sublime starring performance.

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