Friday, December 1, 2017
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: “JUSTICE WRIT LARGE”
Directed by Martin McDonough and starring Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby, Sam Rockwell as Officer Dixon; and Peter Dinklage as James.
THREE BILLBOARDS is more notable for what it does not do than what it does. Which is to say, it confounds our expectations at every turn, overturning, reversing, leaving them unresolved. Mildred Hayes is frustrated that a year has passed since the brutal rape and murder of her daughter. The case has gone cold. She resolves to plaster three billboards just outside the little town of Ebbing, Missouri with messages accusing Sheriff Willoughby of negligence in the criminal investigation. As bad as his passive reception of the message is, even worse is the reaction of his deputy, Officer Dixon, whose blatant racism offers only obstruction. At length, she learns the identity of a possible suspect. Vigilante style, she packs her gun and leaves on her revenge mission.
At least that’s what the movie at first glance seems to be about. I watched with growing surprise, delight, and even amusement as the plot insists on defying the very expectation it sets up. Let’s sample some of them: (1. When Sheriff Willoughby enters the story, he seems to be a compassionate, albeit rather reluctant agent on her behalf. But his sudden suicide halfway through the film (he suffers from terminal cancer) brings his help to an abrupt end. (2. Deputy Dixon’s racist obstruction shifts suddenly as a result of being burned in a fire—a fire at the police station started by Mildred—and, newly transformed, he launches an independent investigation on her behalf. (3. Mildred’s culpability in that fire is shielded by a local resident, “James,” a dwarf. Immediately, we imagine a growing romance between him and Mildred. But no, she rebuffs him and he disappears. (4. When Officer Dixon overhears what he thinks is an incriminating conversation by a stranger, subsequent DNA evidence reveals his innocence of that crime (although possible culpability of other crimes). (5. Although the suspect is innocent, Mildred and Dixon leave town, armed, determined to kill him anyway, as if in retribution for his other crimes. But in the last scene they admit ambivalence about their mission: Will they kill him, after all?—maybe, maybe not.
In the final analysis, easy expectations are set up, then abandoned. The movie is impatient of standard revenge genres. And it refuses, ultimately, to consign the little Missouri town to cardboard stereotypes. Life itself, in Ebbing and elsewhere—and even sometimes in the movies—has a habit of eluding our easy grasp.
Moreover, spicing this rabidly violent fable are not only quirky comic elements—not the least of which are Mildred’s incendiary actions against anybody who stands in her way (including her son’s teenaged companions)—but unexpected moments of grace. They include the note that Sheriff Willoughby leaves behind to his deputy, assuring him that he sees a “good man” underneath Dixon’s violent bigotry (an insight that soon will be borne out). The help offered Mildred by James is a beautifully nuanced gesture of compassion and an outreach of love. Dixon’s momentary thought of suicide (he holds his rifle to his head) is overturned by his resolve to help Mildred. And, best of all is a tiny scene that fairly shines like a jewel amidst the darkly convulsive violence and brutality of the little town: As Mildred crouches in sad defeat at the base of the billboards, she has a sudden vision of a beautiful deer just a few paces away. The camera remains tight on her face, as she addressed the creature with a wistful monologue about this unexpected intrusion of grace into her grimy life. It’s one of those scenes that illumines the entire film with its wistful beauty. And it surely will show up at Oscar time when her nomination will be accompanied by that very scene.