The Bock’s Office: ‘Three Billboards’ showcases small-town drama
The topicality of a movie like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is apparent right from the start, but like most things, a message that’s 30 feet high tends to speak louder than words.
In the small Midwest town of Ebbing, Missouri, what begins as a rather uneventful Easter weekend suddenly becomes a hotbed of conversation for the populace when three long unused billboards along an out-of-the-way country road are now in use.
Rather than an advertisement, the structures convey a personal message that’s none too friendly, directed at the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) regarding his agency’s lack of progress in a recent crime.
There is no mystery for Chief Willoughby about who’s calling him out — local woman Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has never been one to beat around the bush, and the fact that there are still no suspects following the rape and brutal murder of her daughter (Kathryn Newton) has pushed her to demanding an answer on a larger scale.
Still, her chosen medium and the lack of decorum does not win her any supporters in a town where the police are beloved, and it doesn’t take long for death threats to come from all over for Mildred and her son (Lucas Hedges).
Though he doesn’t appreciate the scrutiny that comes from the billboards, Willoughby has to admit that he and his officers could stand to reopen the case, yet with the townfolk of Ebbing riled up about the issue, there may be other matters for the cops to handle.
McDormand has never had a problem portraying blunt women, perhaps no more so than here as a grieving mother who’s done playing nice and according to the rules. Besides conveying the repressed rage that would be typical of anyone in that position, she also finds time to be genuinely hilarious as someone so foul-mouthed you’re surprised her towering message isn’t laced with profanity.
Harrelson matches her in tone and temperament as the dedicated and respected lawman who considers the failed investigation one of his greatest regrets and wants to make it right without appearing to bend too much while he’s also coping with terminal cancer.
Sam Rockwell shines as Willoughby’s right-hand man, Jason Dixon, who at first glance is nothing more than Barney Fife with a checkered past with minority suspects.
And, though he may be an unabashed dope who still lives with his mama (Sandy Martin) and is in law enforcement for all the wrong reasons, there’s a certain humanity to this stooge in his defense of his superior, even if he breaks more laws than he upholds along the way.
Of course, it doesn’t help that few are on Mildred’s side, with the exception of a few friends and a lonely, diminutive car salesman (Peter Dinklage) Then there’s the ex-husband (John Hawkes) who used to abuse her with no consequences and won’t tolerate her soapbox moment. Don’t forget the son who’s growing increasingly alienated while coping with the loss of his sister.
And, if you had to watch the exchange between mother and daughter that occurred the night of the incident in question, you wouldn’t have much sympathy either.
Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh took his time coming back to movies after “Seven Psychopaths,” but his writing and direction make for a far more explosive bit of drama than he’s attempted before.
McDonagh showed through “In Bruges” that he could find the decent side of even the worst people you can imagine, and that works both ways here as he captures the duality of small-town life.
On the one hand, you’ve got a close-knit community that rallies around its most adored citizens in their darkest hour, but that same intimacy doesn’t take much to shift to hostility when provoked.
And, as you can imagine, a tiny speck on the map that’s already dying doesn’t want to be thrust into the national spotlight for something so negative.
Hmm, if only you didn’t turn a blind eye to blatant abuses of power when they’re right in front of you…
The face-to-face interactions between Mildred and Willoughby are most telling — there’s begrudging respect even when they are in a shouting match, but more importantly there’s recognition of how much pain the other has in their life.
If only everyone in Ebbing were so understanding…
It’s a given that the dark humor and loaded issues of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” are what will draw or repel audiences depending on their political opinions going into it. Yet, regardless of how you may view the approach to such a premise, such universally understood pathos is something that should unite people more than divide them in a world that sees one tragedy after another.
Or do you need a billboard to tell you that?