Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Deplorable: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

It felt pretty close to doing full penance just getting through all the grisly condescension and sanctimony of Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. That the picture has been garnering huge acclaim and numerous Best Film awards maybe shouldn't be too surprising given the current political climate. Dialogue in the Trump era has coarsened into Twitter feuds, talking heads on radio (who don't actually talk, but yell), and news anchors on television staking out positions rather than discussing issues, and a poisonous air of tabloid prurience perfumes the culture. People do little reflecting now and plenty more reacting. So Three Billboards keeps itself pretty busy staking out positions and reacting loudly in a cartoon atmosphere filled with ugly caricatures. Instead of reflecting on the current calamity, or even satirizing it cleverly, McDonagh chooses to distort the mood of the country and exploit it for pure effect. And the calculating unpleasantness of Three Billboards, with its queasy mixture of slapstick violence and sentimentality, would be bad enough were it not also trying to say something important. The film deliberately abandons any claim to dramatic realism, or even coherence, in order to manipulate and sway frustrated liberal sentiments and prejudices by crudely calling out "the deplorables" – the yahoos-in-a-basket whom Hillary Clinton identified as Trump's supporters in a misguided campaign speech. But the picture, with dialogue as broadly obvious as a billboard, ends up itself being deplorable by endorsing the same demagogic tactics that made Trump president in the first place.

The protagonist, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), is frustrated that many months have passed without the local cops' having apprehended one suspect in her daughter's rape and murder case. So she decides to rent three billboards on a little-used country road to tweak the investigation – and light a fire under the town's revered Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – by using them to spell out (in sequence), "Raped while dying," "And still no arrests?," and "How come, Chief Willoughby?" You expect that what follows from her actions might be an examination of a mother's grief, where anger and helplessness become a natural outcry, while the movie looks inside the complicated roots and values of a small Bible-belt Missouri town. But McDonagh uses the occasion to make coy social commentary about lingering racism, institutional hypocrisy, indifference and more violence. He has almost all the crazed citizens turn against Mildred, forcing her to become a one-woman vigilante in order to be heard. Arthur Penn's 1965 The Chase, written by Lillian Hellman, exploited the Kennedy assassination to condemn the Southern values of the state of Texas. Three Billboards situates itself more as a post-modern black comedy. The characters' crude dialogue is not so much a form of self-expression as a soap box for McDonagh to mount in order to spew self-righteous platitudes that the audience – apparently – wants to hear. The unpleasant jokiness in the tone of Three Billboards draws attention to itself rather than the actual elements of the plot. It's the kind of social critique that's shrewdly cured in outrage so it can allow the audience room to feel righteously hip while putting down the yokels. Imagine Lillian Hellman by way of Quentin Tarantino.

The story barely makes any sense, but I don't think we're even meant to care. Given that Mildred lost her daughter mere months earlier, isn't it possible that maybe a few people might be sympathetic to her anguish? The billboards themselves are hardly incendiary in nature, but you'd never know it by the town's vicious reaction to them. One person does remark that everybody is with her when it comes to her daughter, but "nobody is with you about [these billboards].” But no one builds on this supposed solidarity to help her push the investigation further so that maybe she'll take them down. All McDonagh does is reverse tired old stereotypes in the service of melodrama – we meet a few of Ebbing's black citizens, who are, of course, beyond reproach reach out, while the white folks almost all behave in a completely loathsome manner. A priest even drops by Mildred's house to try to shame her for doing the billboards so Mildred can condemn Catholicism by comparing the Church to L.A. street gangs and lecturing him on pedophilia. The worst of the redneck hicks is Deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who reads comic books to remind us of his illiteracy. He still lives at home with his ornery mother, who wishes that the South hadn't changed. (Critic Nick Pinkerton in Film Comment suggested that Rockwell must have "devoured all 23 seasons of Hee Haw" in preparing for his role. Actually, watching the whole damn picture is like devouring Hee Haw.) Dixon is the one most outraged by the billboards and he launches into verbal attacks against Mildred. When she calls him out as a law enforcer who beats up black suspects, Dixon answers back that he isn't in the "nigger-torturing business," but "the person-of-color-torturing business." Later, when he brutalizes a man and punches out his secretary, Dixon loses his job, but why doesn't anyone charge him with assault? In time, we're even supposed to accept him as heroic when he suddenly and miraculously becomes sympathetic to Mildred's plight. Curiously, though, his redemption doesn't come from refuting his racist past, his "person-of-color torturing," but from embracing her cause and enlisting in her retribution.

At first, Woody Harrelson's Willoughby seems no different from the rest of the town. In one early scene, he tells Mildred that if every racist on the police force were removed, the only ones left would all "hate fags." Yet it makes little sense that this family man, whose love for his Australian wife (Abbie Cornish) and their two young daughters, is depicted as sweet, would work with these dubious yokel cops and share in their values. Harrelson does try hard to cut beneath the smug humour by bringing his folksy charm to the part, but once we discover he has inoperable cancer the added layer of pathos doesn't square with the picture's mean tone. His exit from the movie – completely predictable – has no purpose except to push Mildred in her mission while supposedly redeeming the townsfolk's anger and hatred.

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand.

Frances McDormand says she patterned the role of Mildred on John Wayne, but which Wayne is she's referring to? The one in The Long Voyage Home? The one in True Grit? Whatever Wayne's shortcomings were as an actor, he often embodied all the contradictory and unresolved aspects of being an American hero. McDormand plays Mildred with a stiff stoicism that reveals nothing more than her sheer doggedness – and it gets tiresome as the film goes on. At times, she resembles the pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson she played in the Coen Brothers' 1996 Fargo. But Fargo, despite its own condescending views of the people in Minnesota (where the brothers grew up), was less a grand comment on the state of the nation than a reflection of the Coens' comic trademark of deadpan detachment. And next to Three Billboards, Fargo could almost have been dreamed up by Jean Renoir. McDormand was infinitely better as the lead character in director Lisa Cholodenko and screenwriter Jane Anderson's HBO adaptation of Elizabeth Stout's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 novel, Olive Kitteridge, where she played a woman in crisis who is dealing with depression and feeling like an outsider. In that mini-series, McDormand took us far inside the complicated feelings of a proud woman who is attempting to hold onto a loving but difficult marriage just as she desires meaningful contact with the people in the coastal town in Maine that she resides in. She created an astonishingly complex portrait of a woman struggling to be free of the emotional traps that bind her. In Three Billboards, McDormand is no more than a pawn in McDonagh's game. She isn't portraying a character here; she's a symbol. Mildred is an emblem of the courageous and virtuous mother with an undying desire for justice no matter what the cost. Even by the end, when the picture appears to draw on the blood-lust vengeance of Death Wish, the conclusion turns out to be deliberately ambiguous so as not to alienate those in the audience who've come to empathize with Mildred. Three Billboards doesn't even have the courage to follow through on its own nihilism.

Martin McDonagh is a British playwright (The Cripple of InishmaanThe Pillowman), born to Irish parents, who turned to feature films in 2008 with the black comedy In Bruges, about two hit men in hiding. He followed that up in 2012 with Seven Psychopaths, which also mixed dark humour with melodrama. But I think Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will reach an even larger and more accepting audience because people really believe that McDonagh is putting his finger on the ferocious divide in Trump's America. Some are even discussing the film in light of the recent outcry by many women against sexual assault and misconduct. But do they not notice – in respect to that outcry – that Mildred's estranged husband (John Hawkes) is a wife-beater involved with a 19-year old (Samara Weaving) who is continually exploited for laughs as if we're supposed to see her (because of her age) doltish beyond repair? Do they not have misgivings about McDonagh wringing guffaws out of Mildred tossing Molotov cocktails at the police station while a racist who's too dense to notice is about to be engulfed in flames? Why aren't audiences worn down by the consistently bad jokes made at the expense of that wonderful actor Peter Dinklage, whose character is consistently referred to as "the midget," and has to defend himself on a date with Mildred because he knows he's "not much of a catch" because he's "a dwarf who sells used cars." (Any movie that doesn't recognize that Peter Dinklage is always a catch has already lost its credibility.) If Donald Trump has indeed demeaned the level of political discourse in America today, and I believe he has, Three Billboards offers proof that he and his followers don't have a corner on that market.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely brilliant, Kevin. "Three Billboards doesn't even have the courage to follow through on its own nihilism," is a pull-quote I wish they'd use use in the advertising for this dreck.