Director Martin McDonagh's compelling "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" features, among other things, misogyny, police brutality, racism, rape, child molestation, white supremacy, unrestricted gun possession, and anti-gay sentiments.
But no, it's not about Roy Moore's quest to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate. Rather, equally provocative and similarly chilling, the superbly acted film details a mother's rage over her daughter's unsolved murder to the backdrop of a small town rendered dysfunctional by the above-listed disgraces.
Frances McDormand, playing Mildred Hayes, the infuriated mom, is the beleaguered face of survival in the Missouri town that we suspect considered itself part of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Suffering its prejudicial rationalizations and a barely concealed anger that threads through day-to-day life in Ebbing, she reminds of Ben Johnson's Sam the Lion in "The Last Picture Show" (1971) who, disgusted by all he surveys, declares, "I've been around that trashy behavior my whole life ... ." No saint herself, she nonetheless serves as the tale's moral compass.
She seethes for revenge with an adamancy evocative of a Greek myth. There will be no quarter given, no forgiveness and no acceptance under any terms. Only the capture of her teenaged daughter's killer and rapist will bring closure to this tortured soul. At her wit's end and fed up by the local law enforcement's failure to find the culprit, she launches, via the medium described by the film's title, an ad campaign to shame them into action. The three billboards read, in succession: "Raped while dying," "And still no arrests," and "How come, Chief Willoughby?"
Placed into a misfortunate, adversarial position is Woody Harrelson's excellently depicted Sheriff Bill Willoughby, whose otherwise fine reputation has won him support from a majority of local denizens. They're more miffed by Mildred's move than he is. While seven months have passed since the vile event, Willoughby assures the distraught mom that the investigation has heretofore sent the police up only blind alleys. A nationwide search has unearthed no DNA matches, and all other investigatory methods have proved equally fruitless.
Meanwhile, the townsfolk, who for the most part view Mildred's 1st Amendment strategy as a threatening affront to the status quo, show their displeasure in both word and deed, including, but not limited to, beating up sympathizers and even tossing one innocent guy out a window.
Leading the reactionary outrage and rounding out the film's triptych of nomination-worthy portrayals is Sam Rockwell's severely troubled Jason Dixon, Willoughby's gung-ho, drink-crazed deputy with a mother complex. He is a civil rights activist's worst nightmare personified.
Crime-story buffs should note that while the murder in question is indeed flummoxing, there are few recognizable clues to engage the armchair sleuth. Although we certainly hope that the killer is caught before the closing credits roll, writer/director McDonagh's impetus is not solely the capture of criminals. Out for larger fish, his muckraking script is an indictment of the regressive mores and folkways found in all too many nooks and hollers in America — a bigoted mindset that deters us from becoming the enlightened civilization the Founding Fathers had envisioned.
Shades of "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955), except that there is no intentional conspiracy afoot, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is the anti-Rockwellian portrait of small-town America. There is no friendly exchange of niceties as polite citizens stroll the square. It's all suspicion and enmity and the sharing of a grudge about a Southern legacy perceived to have been stolen from them. Never mind that it's all built upon the myth of a so-called glorious past that really existed only for the plantation owners. Better to live a lie than face the stark reality.
Doubtlessly hewed from this inherently maladjusted culture, but too strong a character to let the mass fiction obscure the rugged individualist in her, Mildred harbors no illusions. Life is hard, and you have to make the best of it. Fail, and it's probably your own fault. She praises no one; she thanks no one. Look up Mildred Hayes in the dictionary and it reads: tough cookie. Sure, she cuts a corner and even does a few bad things. But if she doesn't always strive for the straight and narrow, at least she knows what it is. We like the old gal, and sympathize with her plight.
Woody Harrelson's Chief Willoughby as the object of her ire placed in an untenable position proves a worthy adversary/would-be ameliorator. As the onion skins of the saga peel, we learn there's a whole subplot more to him than was thought at first blush. And then there's a big wrinkle of a surprise. While matters don't lead to the traditional conclusion usually expected ofsuch murder mysteries, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" instead advertises and invites for contemplation the idea that justice might be realized in the form of a moral twist.
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," rated R, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Martin McDonagh and stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. Running time: 115 minutes
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