There are an absurd number of Best Picture nominees at the Oscars these days: It's almost as if anything that isn't a superhero franchise or animated merchandising exploitation is assured of a nomination. I've written about two of this year's crop, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, and I can't say many of the others tickled my fancy. I resisted seeing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri for some weeks, despite the urgings of family members who liked the sound of it:
"What's it about?"
"It's about a mother whose daughter is murdered and she can't get the police to do anything."
"Is she black?"
"No, it's Frances McDormand."
"Okay, so she's the tough, leathery feminist heroine. Who else is in it?"
"Does he play the dirty rotten corrupt small-town police chief?"
It sounded like the dreariest kind of story we've seen a thousand times before, where Hollywood stacks the deck in all the most tediously predictable ways, and with Woody doing his usual shaven-headed psycho routine, maybe dialed down a notch from his phone-it-in turn as the military commander in the most recent Planet of the Apes caper.
But I got dragged along, and was pleasantly surprised. Actually, literally surprised - in that I couldn't see the plot twists coming, which is extremely rare these days with the bloody boring paint-by-numbers stories peddled by the big studios. The film is just as the title states: It opens with Mildred Hayes (Miss McDormand) renting three faded, forgotten billboards on an empty stretch of country road no one drives down since they built the highway. Her trio of advertisements go up almost immediately:
RAPED WHILE DYING
AND STILL NO ARRESTS
HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
The only house in the vicinity is Mildred's, but nonetheless the message is a provocation. A cop car passes as the billboard crew are pasting them up, and Officer Dixon gets out to intimidate them. He's slow, and inarticulate, and racist. They jeer at him, and we're meant to, too.
So far, so Hollywood-normal. Mildred has been beaten down, not just by her violent ex-husband but by the vicissitudes of fate: Her last words to her slain daughter were, with hindsight, ill-chosen. The girl's rape and death have remade Mildred: She is now the mother of a dead child, and she wears it on a rictus face that looks as if it died on the night she got the news. The light has faded from her eyes; her mouth hangs slack and glum. Yet she is not grieving, but raging - against a do-nothing police department and the broader culture that sustains it: Ebbing has the usual scuzzy bar complete with a "town midget" (albeit a celebrity midget, from Game of Thrones: Peter Dinklage) and bonehead regulars who assume that any male who isn't a boorish snarling clod is an obvious fag.
As I said: so far, so paint-by-numbers. And then we meet Woody Harrelson's Chief Willoughby: He's clearly an experienced cop, years on the force, big physical presence, a hero to his men, prone to saying "Goddamn" somewhat promiscuously. But he's calm, thoughtful, decent, a shrewd judge of others, and attentive to his appearance, with clean white shirts that are always crisply pressed. He doesn't like the billboards, but he tries to explain to Mildred that in some cases you just don't catch a break: there are no witnesses, no leads, no fingerprint matches, no clues to follow. So it stays unsolved ...and there's nothing to do but wait until some guy has a beer too many in that scuzzy bar and starts blabbing to the pal across the booth about the dark secret of one night a while back.
Mildred doesn't care. So the Chief tells her that he's got terminal cancer. She still doesn't care. Like everyone else in town, she already knew, and she tells him she put up the billboards now because they'll have less impact when he's dead. He's visibly stunned by her heartlessness. And you begin to discern that tart, feisty, indomitable Mildred maybe isn't a very nice person.
To be sure, it's funny when she yells from her car at a typical local-news airhead:
This didn't put an end to sh*t, you f**king retard; this is just the f**king start. Why don't you put that on your 'Good Morning, Missouri' f**king wake-up broadcast, bitch?
But you can't help noticing that this is pretty much how she talks to everyone - including her late daughter. Her stony face is a billboard in itself - advertising to the world to go f**k itself, you f**king retard. But its fierce set is also a kind of prison, trapping her inside, in all her hate and poison and regret. It's an ugly, mesmeric performance by Miss McDormand that few other name actresses would be willing to entertain: it tells the audience, "I'm supposed to be the character you sympathize with? F**k you!"
On the other hand, Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is rumored to have abused a black suspect in custody for an earlier case. When the errant officer starts harassing her friends, Mildred heads to the cop shop and, by way of an opening conversational gambit, enquires: "So how's it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?" He sneers back that "it's the persons-of-color-torturing business these days". This exchange is played for laughs - and gets them, albeit a wee bit nervously. And then, when Dixon has left the room, Chief Willoughby sighs to Mildred that "if you got rid of all the racist cops there'd be three left - and they'd hate the fags". And he smiles, because it's a good-natured faux-cynicism, rather than the soul-sapping real thing.
This is an unusual scene in an American movie - not because any of the above statements are necessarily true, but because of the ease with which they're shrugged off, as if these are real people talking without being run past contemporary discourse enforcers: The supposed heroine says "nigger", the supposed villain is self-aware enough to mock the mandated pieties, and the third exaggerates the scale of the problem for the comic effect of denying it's a problem at all. And at least two of these characters - the one saying "nigger" and the one saying "fags" - are the ones we're supposed to sympathize with. And why not? We're all imperfect beings. And interesting stories are not found in black and white, they lie in shades of grey. In a state or a nation or a continent, you can maybe find a pure saint or a pure villain. But in a small town it's a limited selection of human capital - people have their good points and bad points, and Chief Willoughby has learned to work with what's available. So he understands that even an ostensibly repellent specimen of man might have "the makings of a really good cop".
Unfortunately, the Chief is dying, and so his grip on the situation loosens, and violence and turbulence metastasize as surely as his cancer.
If the picture has a message, it's in the dying chief's boundless patience with the flawed and crooked timber of humanity all around him. This is an unfashionable approach in today's world, and a subtle and nuanced storytelling for contemporary Hollywood. Critics who like their dramatis peronae to fit into neat identity-politics boxes are oddly resentful of this film, and indeed seem disturbed that it can even be made in the America of 2018. In fact, Three Billboards is co-produced by Film Four, the feature arm of Britain's Channel Four, with whom I had some modest truck at one point in what passes for my career. It's written and directed by Martin McDonagh, a Londoner of Irish extraction I first came across with his West End and Broadway hit The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first of many plays set in his ancestral Galway.
Obviously, he knows Connemara much better than he knows Missouri, but in a certain sense his outsider's eye helps him here - because it's not really a southern or American story: it's a universal parable. (Unusually for today, none of the principal characters are black, and the racism stuff is there, one vaguely feels, for the frisson of transgressivism.) From his Galway gambols there is the trademark black comedy: You'll enjoy Mildred's visit to the dentist, and a dinner date she's finagled into. But he doesn't condescend to his characters, and he understands them in their lived reality. There are a few stock types - the dimwit jailbait dating the ex-husband, the "Numinous Negro" (in Richard Brookhiser's coinage) who shows up from the state capital - but these are peripheral. What drives the story are lurching plot points - suicide, violence, burning - and their accompanying switches in perspective, culminating in a tentative ending that is nevertheless optimistic, and touched by God's grace.
All the performances, with one exception, are good. Frances McDormand's is characteristically intelligent, and so is Woody Harrelson's, although perhaps a bit less characteristically. But I would calculate that Sam Rockwell, as the confused, angry Dixon, has a slight edge on Mr Harrelson in next weekend's Best Supporting Actor showdown. In the end, Martin McDonagh has made a tale of redemption - or at least the possibility of redemption, in which a dead-end town doesn't have to lead to a dead-end life.
~For a different kind of entertainment this Saturday night, join us in a couple of hours for Part Nine of Mark's audio serialization of The Thirty-Nine Steps.
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