By Simon Broder
There are no heroes in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s latest film, 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film, superficially an examination of the lengths a mother will go to in order to avenge her missing and murdered daughter, is really much more an examination of the darkness inherent in the human condition and the ambiguity that emerges when several different agents make their own selfish choices in the world.
The film opens on Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a grieving mother, noticing a couple of abandoned billboards on the side of the road. She storms into the ad agency that owns them and orders the clerk to broadcast her message to the local police force:
Raped while dying
And still no arrests?
How come, Chief Willoughby?
This open challenge to a police department derelict in their duties has predictably complex results, as a public relations war leads to certain cops trying to undermine Mildred’s entire life. The chief in question (played by Woody Harrelson) turns out to be, really, quite a decent fellow. But soon the events set in motion by the billboards spin out of control of Mildred and the Chief as secondary actions, mostly revolving around a bad cop played with gumption by Sam Rockwell, lead to escalating violence in the town.
While the subject matter may be dark, the film itself is actually quite funny. As the characters are pulled around in ridiculous ways, the film has no problem highlighting these ironies for a quick laugh. Combined with the sombre subject matter, the overall effect is what one might label “tragifarce” – a comedy of errors with serious consequences.
McDonagh’s previous works, including In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, similarly blend the comic with the serious, though both masquerade more as classic action flicks. Here, McDonagh manages to take an action movie ethos and infuse it into the type of story which one expects to be handled much more carefully, with the gravitas of staid documentaries and serious period pieces. By throwing his characters around with such abandon and not simply killing them off, McDonagh almost ironically highlights the real human toll of the typical film violence exemplified in his earlier black comedies. Characters are almost cartoonishly hurled through windows and set afire, but as a result of keeping these characters alive, we get weird moments of fallout, including a tender moment in a hospital room between two enemies as they both nurse horrendous injuries. While this farcical setup can lead to hilarity, it does feel a little artificial at times, with a sense that scenes are being over-staged in order to evoke maximum irony. But it’s a small sin to pay for building such a complex and funny movie.
By the end of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the missing daughter seems almost incidental to the plot. Havoc has been wreaked on the town. The movie is sort of a big mud wrestle: two people jump in the ring, but pretty soon everyone within five yards is completely covered in crap. Three Billboards is a movie where one bad thing leads to many worse things and nothing is ever put back together.
Is the film about the missing and murdered women who lead a trail throughout North America? Is it about police brutality in middle America? On some level it’s both, but on some level it’s neither – it’s just a story about what happens when a number of disparate lives interact under a certain set of circumstances.
What makes Three Billboards great isn’t so much the moments of humour or sadness, or any great relation to characters who mostly come across as despicable – it’s the sense that this film captured a moment in time, a moment where several lives were changed. It seems that if only one piece of the puzzle could be put back together (in this case, the murdered daughter), then maybe all the chaos could be undone. The film is a spring that just can’t be put back in the box – at the end of the day, it’s about how easily lives can unravel.
“Simon Broder is a Toronto-based writer and content creator for TheRichest.com and RaptorsHQ.com as well as www.swtmw.blogspot.ca (an ongoing book project). Broder’s short fiction will be featured in the journal Blank Spaces (March, 2018). He tweets @dougiejays.