Saturday, March 10, 2018
My Take On Three Billboards Outside, Ebbing Missouri
Three Billboards: 2.9 out of 5.
I’m long to be sure as to why but what the hell.
Spoiler alerts up the yin yang.
I didn’t much like Three Billboards Outside, Ebbing Missouri, which I saw yesterday.
It focuses on two central characters, Frances McDormand as Mildred and Sam Rockwell as Dixon, who both have ugly souls, and are near to crazy, near to sociopathic. I don’t see where the screenwriter-director, McDonagh, has any sympathy for them save for an undercut smidge at movie’s end when he allows some humanity in, some of it showing up as McDormand and Rockwell drive to Idaho debating whether to kill a guy who had nothing to do with the rape and burning to death of McCormand’s daughter but who, they think, must have raped and burned some other girl.
After initial enthusiasm to go and do it, doubts emerge in both of them as they start their drive to Idaho. They’ll decide as they go, they agree and so the movie ends, pointlessly.
To me, the intense drama and the black humor, abundant in the movie, mitigate each other. So what is the point of including them both? Black humor is at bottom a mode of fantasy; it involves cruelty, hurt and violence wrenched out of all realism, like a Roadrunner cartoon, so that we laugh at what we’re seeing and maybe our laughter gets us some insight into our own insensitivity to the human darkness of what we laugh at.
So black humor doesn’t sit consistently or easily with intense drama, which wants to rivet us so that our emotions respond to that intensity. Intense drama and black humour come at us from opposed thematic premises and when mixed together the effects are incoherent, which is to say, pointless.
Therefore Frances McDormand’s unrelenting fury over her daughter’s horrific murder, her fury blackened even more by the crime having become just another cold case, is at first understandable. The three billboards are understandable. But her gnawing, one note anger starts to wear a little thin. Her inner ugliness becomes dominant and she wears it vividly in face, body and dress.
After Harrelson as Willoughby the sheriff explains to her that case has gone cold and that he’s dying of cancer and would she please take the billboards down, our sympathies shift. She refuses. He’s right and her she’s wrong.
Her rapt fury, intensifying by the minute, comes to seem increasingly unjustified and unhinged. She drives a dental drill through the finger of an opinionated dentist, who proclaims his loyalty to Willoughby. She’s a crazed antihero, a crazed vigilante, fuelled by her own resolute, absolute sense of moral justification. She fire bombs the police station and then lets the town’s dwarf car salesman alibi her, which then gets her to promise him dinner but only with an assurance that he can’t fuck her. So the horror of the fire bombing that nearly burns Rockwell alive becomes in the end bizarrely blackly comic.
To what end?
Why is her crazed, embittered self righteousness made in the end here laughable? As I say, the movie ends with her, in a more mellow tone, wondering whether maybe she shouldn’t kill a guy who had nothing to do with her daughter’s death after all. So, again, what’s the point?
I could make a similar run through Rockwell as Dixon, a swaggering, drunken, comic book-reading, dumb, violent racist cop who is also the mama’s boy to an old, salty boot of a mother who guides him in trying to force the removal of the billboards by suggesting that he manipulatively arrest McDormand’s friends.
But in this do we maybe have a clue as to Three Billboards’s point? Maybe he’s not as dumb as he seems; no one is all that they seem to be; continually the movie undercuts our expectations by details and little incidents that defy them. This all gives way to the theme of a more complex humanity than we might otherwise have expected.
So Willoughby in his ante-suicide letter to Rockwell tells him he has the makings of a good detective if he’d only stop and think before he acts out of rage. And the letter lets us know that Rockwell’s father died when Rockwell was young and he had the burden from then on of needing to support his mother, which has fuelled his own malevolent anger.
Similarly, Willoughby, a seeming saint of a man, in the right against Mildred being in the wrong as to the unsolved murder, has twists to him. His sewer mouth before his children, two little girls, takes us at least mildly aback. His suicide, a unilateral act, is morally ambiguous, at a minimum.
Why shock his wife and kids that way? Why take his own life right on his property where his dead body with massacred bloody head will be shockingly found? Why not eke out more life with his family before living becomes unbearable? There’s no indication he’s in pain or even dysfunctional: as his unknowing wife says to him on the evidence of her own body and just before his shoots himself,
...That was a real nice day. That was a real nice fuck. You got a real nice cock, Mr. Willoughby...
Most of all, Willoughby while alive abides on the job his dumb, racist thug deputy, Rockwell, the very Rockwell who tortures prisoners, who beats on the blacks he arrests, who’s a drunk on the job, who’s menacingly violent on and off the job, who’s in a nutshell the archetypal good ol’ boy southern Sheriff like Jim Clark. And Willoughby, as I noted, tells Rockwell in his letter to him that he’s got the makings of a good detective.
There’s been a criticism of the movie that it oughtn’t have allowed Rockwell any semblance of redemption. That criticism may be overwrought and may misread the ending. True enough, he and Mildred find some compassion for each other later in the film. In that, Rockwell sacrifices his body and endures a vicious beating to get the DNA of a guy—a dark presence in the film—he thinks has admitted to the rape and burning murder of Mildred’s daughter.
But what’s the upshot of this semblance of redemption? Rockwell and McDormand presumptively agree to kill that guy in some bizarre attempt at revenge and expiation even though they both know he’s innocent of that crime. And that’s all they know. (It’s to be remembered that Mildred fought with her daughter, who could no longer stand living with her, on the fateful night, refusing her use of the car. Her daughter screams at her, paraphrase, “Ok, I’ll walk. I hope I get raped.” Mildred screams back at her, paraphrase, “I hope you do too.” Mildred throughout the movie is trying to expiate her guilt over that. In trying to do that she rides remorselessly roughshod over others.) Mildred is an unconstrained ugly bag of human misery: but she’s been that before the murder; and she’s even more of that after it.
So what’s the point of this illusory redemption; what’s the thematic resolution here, which can include coherent irresolution? I’m saying there’s none, that Three Billboards collapses in its own incoherence with its director, McDonagh, too clever by half, thematically flailing in his unholy mixing of intense drama and black humor, each biting into the effect of the other.
I have two other considerable bones to pick.
First, for all the moral deficiencies and enigmas marking almost all the white characters, why are all the black characters shown as wholly good and morally uncompromised? This cleavage cuts against what I strugglingly understand the movie’s theme to be: something like that people and events are wretchedly ugly but complicated, with the worst people having back stories that provide some ameliorating understanding and with the repulsive characters having some smidgeons of decency and humanity, all of which continually defies our expectations.
One example: McDormand in a restaurant walks menacingly up to her wife beating ex husband and his extremely dumb 19 year old girlfriend, who doesn’t know the difference between polo and polio, menacingly carrying a bottle of wine but then winds up giving them the bottle and admonishing her ex, paraphrase, to “take good care of her.”
But there are no surprises complicating the black characters’ unmitigated goodness. Seems like some sucky, virtue signaling pc to me.
Second, apart from the black characters, why is almost everyone else in the film so sneered at, so looked down on, so presented as miserable, dumb, ugly fucks? To me it smacks sharply of harsh fly over dismissive condescension, an awful lot of shitting on southern midwest hicks. That together with the angelic representation of the black characters stamps this film with the blurry ink of the worst kind of smug, elitist liberalism.
Is all what I think anyway.