Angry in America
I have to confess that I do occasionally have a problem remembering which of the McDonagh brothers (John Michael and Martin) is which. Which one of them wrote and directed In Bruges? Which one did Calgary? Or Seven Psychopaths? Or The Guard? Luckily this is a less serious issue than it could be, as no matter which McDonough is responsible, the films themselves are almost always witty, thoughtful, and provocative in a good way. And so it proves with Martin McDonagh's new film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, yet another film which finds itself almost uncannily positioned to comment on and possibly take advantage of the unusual moment in which the United States finds itself.
The film opens just outside the small town of the title, and finds Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a teenage son, being struck by a moment of inspiration when she sees three long-disused billboards near her home. Some months earlier, her teenage daughter was raped and murdered, and there has been no word from the police department about this for a very long time. Incensed by the lack of progress, or indeed communication, Mildred rents the boards and puts up a set of messages highlighting the apparent inertia of the cops, in particular the police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
Willoughby, a basically decent man, is frustrated and irritated by this, but he has deeper personal problems to deal with and is inclined to be understanding. However, one of his men, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is somewhat less inclined to show empathy. Dixon is a little bit dim and more than a little bit bigoted, and happy to use any means necessary to get Mildred off the police's case. Neither side seems willing to consider moderating their position, and with Willoughby stuck in the middle, it seems that only a further tragedy stands any chance of bringing resolution to the situation...
This is another case of a film proving slightly tricky to review, mainly because there is a significant plot element that doesn't feature in the trailer, presumably because McDonagh wants it held back as a surprise for the viewer (despite the fact it's established very early on in the story). The trailer, more to the point, seems to be pitching Three Billboards as a kind of offbeat, somewhat Coenish black comedy. And I'm really not sure that this does the movie justice at all.
There are certainly moments of comedy here, and the film is shot through with darkness of the most uncomfortable kind, but this does not feel like a film really setting out to amuse the audience. It would be equally easy to describe it as simply being the story of a woman setting out to confront the forces of male establishment prejudice, but I don't think that this is what the film is truly about, either.
Certainly, it touches on elements of racism and bigotry, not to mention police brutality, but there's almost a sense in which the film can't pass a potential issue without trying to be provocative about it, from homophobia to child abuse in the Catholic Church. But touching on a subject doesn't mean the film's actually about that thing, and if anything, Three Billboards seems to me to be a deeply serious film about a number of things, one of them being anger and guilt. (McDonagh himself has said the film is about rage.) It seems to me that the film is suggesting that Mildred is provoking and sustaining fury as a coping method to help her deal with her own issues of grief and regret: McDormand's performance, a masterclass of intensity and quiet stillness, certainly seems to suggest as much, as do the numerous striking moments in which the film pauses to become almost lyrically meditative.
If the film does have a message for the United States today, it is a more complex and (perhaps) less easily digestible one than the simple platitude that prejudice is bad. Mildred is an essentially good person, the film makes clear, but a good person whom events transform into an implacable righteous avenger. The problem is that a righteous avenger can be just as destructive a force as a thuggish, reactionary brute like Rockwell's character, if neither of them is prepared to compromise. And so it transpires – neither side refuses to show any consideration for the other. Mistakes are made. Misunderstandings occur. And it is people caught in the crossfire who are the ones to suffer.
It seems to me that here McDonagh is creating a parable about the modern United States, which (as far as many observers can tell) is currently as divided and factionalised as it has been in living memory. The tendency towards unthinking demonisation of the opposition, and a lack of basic kindness and decency – these are other things that (again, it seems to me) Three Billboards is about, but they could surely equally be said about the culture wars taking place in America currently. If the film ultimately suggests that there is hope for some kind of rapprochement and a new kind of unity, then it is couched in the most unsettling terms – then again, there are few films which conclude on such a finely judged note of ambiguity and ambivalence as this one.
McDormand and Rockwell are both really excellent (in an example of just the kind of inflexible ideological puritanism that the film appears to be warning against, it has been suggested that Rockwell should not receive any awards for his performance, as it is apparently morally wrong to reward someone for playing a racist), but so is Woody Harrelson, who has perhaps suffered for having a somewhat smaller role than either of the others. Then again, this is a film stuffed with classy, well-judged performances. The only very mild issue is with Abbie Cornish's appearance as Harrelson's wife – I think it's probably a good performance, but the fact that it's impossible to work out what kind of accent Cornish is attempting is inevitably a bit distracting.
There are plenty of laughs in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I think this is a very serious film that has the nerve to try and tackle some big subjects, both emotional and topical. As a result it includes a lot of a material which I suspect many viewers will find off-putting. This really is a drama, and one that goes to some extremely dark and potentially upsetting places. But it's also a highly intelligent and very humane film, even if the notes of optimism it eventually strikes are inevitably somewhat muted. Most likely one of the films of the year.