Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) - Movie Review

The plot: When the police fail to find the person responsible for the death of her daughter, Mildred (Frances McDormand) decides to take matters into her own hands. To draw attention back to the case, she rents three billboards just outside of town with a direct message for local sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). As the police start to feel the pressure, and the townsfolk give their own reactions to a member of the community being called out in this fashion, the town of Ebbing, Missouri is about to get turned upside-down.

Have to admit, possibly as an extension of my rather meh feelings about the Coen brothers, McDormand has never stood out to me that much as an actor… until now. The way she balances out her taketh-no-shits attitude with such intense emotion and truly amazing delivery of her dialogue is staggering; this is one of those rare moments that makes me give a shit about the Oscars, because this is a performance that deserves to be recognised. In fact, pretty much everyone else here deserves recognition. Harrelson knocks it out of the park, Sam Rockwell turns his usual ways with scumbag characters into one of the most impressive character arcs I’ve seen all year, Lucas Hedges as McDormand’s son gets one of the single best lines in the film as a snippy rebuttal and he pulls it off incredibly well, and Peter Dinklage plays his literally pitiful character so well that, even with how much everyone seems to be at each other’s throats, you genuinely feel sorry that it happens to him specifically.

Even the bit parts are outstanding: Caleb Landry Jones as an advertiser shows that he can be excellent even without being attached to a complete whack job of a character, Samara Weaving as Mildred’s ex’s girlfriend Penelope brings back that captivating energy from The Babysitter to give the film even more stand-out moments, and Ċ½eljko Ivanek as the police desk sergeant takes playing-by-the-book in terms of police work and turns it into a laugh riot with great success. The only real down point in terms of the cast is Abbie Cornish as Woody Harrelson’s wife. That sentence alone should illustrate the problem concerning casting, along with how Abbie’s attempt at an accent is far from impressive, but her diminished role within the narrative means that even though she is the weakest here, she isn’t nearly weak enough to spoil the film around her.

Knowing how much darker comedy has been soured over the last few years, it is a massive relief that this film is as funny as it is. Mainly, because it zigs in every way that the usual “let’s be dark for darkness’ sake” fare zags. Rather than relying on rambling nonsense to carry the humour, the dialogue is very direct and to-the-point, not letting a single syllable go wasted. As this largely serves the end of characters putting each other in their place, what we get are a lot of quotables and immensely powerful moments. Whether it’s telling people precisely what they think to their face, like with the scene between Mildred and a priest that is about as cathartic as anything I’ve seen since this blog started, or sharing words of encouragement, like when Willoughby tells Dixon that he believes Dixon can be more than he is, everything we hear spoken feels like it has its place in the overall production and we’re not just watching mandated dead air.
Same goes for the more violent moments, which are also rather economical in that they don’t ultimately last that long. They can get particularly gruesome, involving such lovely imagery as being burned alive or having a hole drilled through your hand, but it never reaches the point of being drawn out for its own sake. Hell, it never even feels drawn out at all, given the moments last only a few seconds and are timed so precisely that they feel more like slapstick.

But the big highlight of the film’s script, beyond the hilariously cutthroat dialogue, is how well defined the characters are. In fact, taking all of the main cast into account, this is easily some of the best character development I’ve seen in a long-ass time, especially on this scale. From the initial setup, with Mildred wanting justice for her daughter and appearing ready to take into her own hands when the police won’t, it seems pretty cut-and-dry. Mildred is in the right, the police are dicks, Willoughby and Dixon are racists, and those billboards will stick it to them.
However, as we see more of these characters, complexities start to show. Mildred is driven by a want for retribution, but also a need to ease her own guilt. Willoughby is made out to be ineffectual, but shows himself to be far less self-serving than the film initially implies. Dixon is undeniably incompetent at his job, but that’s more out of genuine idiocy than anything hateful. As the layers keep getting peeled back, we are shown a collection of people (not just characters, but people who feel about as real as whoever else is occupying the cinema you may end up seeing this film in) who aren’t so simple to nail down as being good or bad. It acknowledges that, even though we are driven by basic urges, humans themselves aren’t basic and behind closed doors, they could be someone you never would have guessed just from a few select actions.

But why is it set up like this? I mean, we’re dealing with a story about the police being too busy torturing black people… oh, sorry, I mean torturing people of colour, to actually solve crimes; how are we supposed to side with the police here? Well, for a start, that’s not actually the kind of story this is. Not by a long shot. Far more than a comment on police brutality or institutional racism, Three Billboards is a comment on prejudice; the feelings that we harbour against others who really haven’t done anything wrong. There’s a moment in the film where Penelope is quoted as saying that anger only begets greater anger. Now, while the film ends up twisting this around for the sake of extra laughter (and it certainly gets that, as the follow-up line from Dinklage got the biggest laugh of them all at the screening I attended), there’s still truth to it.

Every major action shown, from the brief flashes of violence to the deliciously worded insults, even down to the spite-fuelled decision to put up the three billboards, is connected to anger. Always directed at someone and always justified more by gut feeling than anything tangible. However, when the film starts to shift around the halfway point, that changes. What was once fury is replaced with patience, what was once vengeance is replaced with forgiveness, and what was once prejudice is replaced with empathy. It’s a character piece about how fighting fire with fire (at points, this idea is taken to rather uproarious extremes) won’t solve anything. Kill with kindness. As someone who has seen what back-and-forth rage-outs have failed to get done in the real world, this is another one of those codas that needs to be in circulation right now.

All in all, I literally only have one complaint with this entire film, and it’s about a single casting choice that doesn’t even factor into the narrative all that much. Everything else here is just about perfect. The acting is among the best I’ve ever seen from everyone involved, the sense of humour on display is both refreshing and always hits the target, the characters are sharply defined and make the story even more engrossing, and the overall message is one that I could not commend enough if I tried. I’m a pacifist by nature and, knowing how my own violent tendencies turned out growing up, I don’t see aggression as the answer; not to the problems that are the most pressing at this moment in history. This film, far better than I ever could just from these writings, manages to convey why and how there’s a better solution, in a way that is funny, heartfelt and gripping from front-to-back.

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