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Non-Review Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

“All this anger. It only begets more anger.”

Ironically enough, given the title, the anger in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri never seems to ebb. Martin McDonagh’s small town black comedy drama is a parable about grief that metastasises into all-consuming rage. Fire is a recurring fixation for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a potent metaphor for both the scorched earth left behind by trauma and the tendency of such anger to swallow up everything in its path. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a cautionary fable.

Reading the signs.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri benefits from a number of different factors. McDonagh’s script is smart and well-constructed, wry in the right places and emotional when it counts, imbuing the characters and their surroundings with an organic and lived-in quality that enriches the story built around them. The locations are atmospheric and effective, creating a sense of place that extends beyond mere geography. The cast is fantastic, particularly supporting turns from Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

However, Frances McDormand is the engine that drives Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. While the film features several set pieces built around fire, the hottest flame burns at the heart of the central character. As enraged mother Mildred Hayes, McDormand captures the energy and the depth of a woman raging against a system that let her down, an unjust world that denies her closure, and her own sense of guilt and responsibility.

Ebbing and flowing.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri suggests that trauma leaves a mark, whether upon a person or a place. The film never really discusses it, but it becomes clear that Mildred Hayes lost her daughter near enough to the site of the eponymous advertisements. Scorched earth marks the area where Angela Hayes was raped and murdered, and then set alight by a killer who was never brought to justice. Those billboards lie within sight of the Hayes residence, and Mildred seeks to turn those “twenty-foot tall letters” into a constant reminder of her daughter’s death.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a meditation upon grief. Mildred has watched the world move on from her trauma, a pain and a loss that she cannot move past. The film suggests that perhaps these billboards are about more than just reminding the town of Mildred’s loss, hinting that they might serve as a constant reminder to Mildred herself. They become a part of the world that she claims for herself. Sheriff Bill Willoughby jokes about Mildred having to “defend” the billboards, and that seems to literally be the case; she tends to and decorates them.

The local police department really put their feet up.

There is something human in Mildred’s refusal to let go of her grief, just as there is something human in the community’s response to her accusations. Early in the film, Mildred lectures Father Montgomery about the theory of “culpability.” There is a sense that the people living in Ebbing do not like to be reminded of their failures; their failure to find the killer responsible for the violence committed on Angela, and their failure to help Mildred work through her grief and her loss. Mildred’s billboards are a monument to that failure, a physical scar on the landscape.

The characters in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri all seem to be carrying their own scars and their own wounds. Some characters prefer to internalise those wounds, to bury them deep within themselves. Bill Willoughby is dying of cancer; although the whole town knows, he seems to prefer to keep it to himself. Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie was physically abusive towards her, even if he left no physical scars; their son Robbie is clearly on-guard and ready to step in should a situation escalate. These wounds fester and linger. The billboards bring them to the surface.

Chief concerns.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri understands that the first stage of grief is anger. One character finds herself confronted with a note from a departed lover warning her that she will feel anger in the immediate future, but that she needs to work through it. The issue with many of the characters in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is that so few of the characters have allowed themselves to work through their anger towards a more constructive stage of grief. Instead, that anger rooted in grief is allowed to simmer, and it comes to a boil.

At various points in the film, characters prove willing to burn the world down. Fire is a potent weapon for these characters, seeking to lash out against an uncaring world that has been indifferent to their plight. Fire consumes everything in its path, scorching earth and destroying foundations. However, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri points out that fire is also indiscriminate. Like the anger driving it, these arson attacks are often misdirected; characters assume that their anger is directed at the correct target, only to discover that it is not.

Fitting the Bill.

As much as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri understands the futility and self-defeating nature of this anger, it also understands the need for catharsis. Some things cannot be forced to make sense, to conform to reason. The world is random and cruel in places, and righteous aggression can offer some sense of satisfaction in response. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri repeatedly refuses to make sense of the world for its audience; the first couple of times the audiences see the eponymous billboards, they see them in reverse.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri introduces the character of Sam Dixon trying to make sense of the three messages written on the three billboards. Dixon approaches these billboards from behind, so he works through the accusations in reverse order. The first and second statements make no sense, as he complains to the staff putting up the signs. It is only when Dixon drives further down the road and takes a step back that he can properly soak in the statement being made and the accusations being leveled. Three messages become a single narrative, at a distance.

Slice of life.

McDonagh’s script for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is very well constructed, both in terms of character and in terms of story. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri twists and turns as it goes, but never in a way that feels like a cheap twist or a sharp turn. Everything is properly set up and duly foreshadowed. More than that, McDonagh grasps the complexity of his characters. Sam Dixon initially seems like a two-dimensional caricature, but develops into a fully-formed individual over the course of the story.

Even in her introductory scene, Mildred remains a bundle of contradictions. Mildred simmers with rage, but shows a strange compassion for a cockroach trapped upside down on a windowsill. Mildred is repeatedly shown as concerned and decent over the course of the film. As much as she might taunt Willoughby, she also has sympathy for his illness. As much as she might rage against a seemingly nihilistic and indifferent world, she finds some measure of comfort in a visit from a deer; although she refuses to read any meaning into the encounter.

It’s all a bit of a Hayes.

Frances McDormand is a force of nature. The film would be fantastic even without her performance, but McDormand brings a raw passion and humanity to the central role that powers the movie. Mildred is a compelling and engaging protagonist, a character who has a rich and vivid inner life. There are moments when Mildred seems to want to burn the whole world down, and McDormand suggests that she would remain perfectly steady at the centre of it. McDormand suggests a woman struggling to hold herself together as the world falls apart.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a powerful modern day parable about loss and meaning, and about the anger that threatens to eat all of that up. The film offers few easy answers, but – like Mildred herself – asks some very tough questions.

 

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