Saturday 13 January 2018

Signs: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

They are, as the phrase insists, characters in their own right. Three rundown hoardings, on a desolate stretch of road on the outskirts of some podunk town, onto which a middle-aged woman has pasted a stark description of her daughter's unsolved murder, and a call to arms to the town's beleaguered police chief. Papering over the aspirational homilies that usually sit here with a message that amplifies her own long-held doubts and anxieties isn't the most popular move Mildred Hayes has ever made, but there the billboards are nevertheless: a cry for help in the dark, a lone voice in the wilderness, three stands against the injustices of this world, nagging, needling, intriguing all those who gaze upon them. Eventually, we will see the back of them - literally so, in one of the elegant reverse-angles that close out Martin McDonagh's much-discussed dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - but they have a way of sticking in the mind a long while after the lights have come back on, fuchsia-pink pop-ups that speak, once again, to the power of advertising.

Perhaps only a woman could have shook things up so. Here's a battle of the sexes that has sunk its claws far deeper into awards voters than that recent cinematic tennis match: no sooner has Mildred (Frances McDormand) completed her handiwork than she's besieged by the all-male employees of the Ebbing police department. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) turns out to be a decent enough cove, well-intentioned and much-loved in the community, but he literally doesn't have the time to reopen an investigation that went nowhere very much in the first place. Altogether more problematic is his rash deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a blunt tool of law enforcement around whom there lurks rumour and suspicion; we know he's no good once we see he shares a mom with Mac from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, out of whose mouth falls gobfuls of Old South invective. Opinion is split elsewhere. Mildred gets moderate support from her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), though even he has to confess the billboards have started to bum him out after a while; her ex (John Hawkes), however, expresses his disapproval by wrapping his hand around her throat and pinning her to a wall, which seems an unduly direct means of trying to shut her up.

Increasingly, it appears as though McDonagh, the playwright-turned-director who's made a career of penning variably heady provocations (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), has turned his eye to the subject of trauma, and the peculiar dance society now does around it. Not for the first time recently, a woman declares something terrible has happened to her, and all of a sudden it's open season: Mildred finds herself surrounded not just by those who would question her sanity and abilities as a mother, but by men who - for one reason or another - simply want peace and quiet, and thereby maintain the status quo. The wild card, which keeps the film away from the piety and predictability it might have lapsed into, is that Mildred is herself something of a wild card, an apparently concerned citizen who begins the film by turning a drill on her dentist, and ends it by initiating a firebombing campaign. Something in the way those billboards are framed replicates our conflicted responses to the traumatising act: do we print it out in angry 25-point font and rub the world's noses in it, in the hope that anger might change the world, or do we let it recede in the rear-view mirror, even as the scars remain and the wrong continues to gnaw at us?

McDonagh refuses to take an obvious side in this conflict, and that refusal - born, I suspect, of equal parts puckishness and an acknowledgement there are no stock or easy answers - has brought him a measure of pushback from Film Twitter, busy erecting their own billboards of protest along the road to the Oscars. I hear some of these protestations: I too doubt whether this filmmaker, unhesitatingly flinging the c- and n-words about, has been within thirty miles of a political correctness seminar, and I agree there are notes of barely disguised sourness in the wit. (If it does go on to scoop the Oscar, Three Billboards will surely be the Best Picture winner with the highest number of fat jokes.) There are outright missteps here, enough to suggest McDonagh isn't as yet the master filmmaker some in high office are ready to crown him as. Oddly cutely asides with Mildred talking to a (poorly rendered) CG deer or her own rabbit slippers feel like executive decisions imposed at precisely the point the character risks getting lost in the shuffle (and also nothing like anything that no-bullshit character would do); and, as in the dreary Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh believes that he can get away with some of his shonkier, more coincidental narrative manoeuvres if he knowingly flags them as such two or three scenes in advance. Martin: you can't.

Still, some of the film's so-called crimes actually struck me as interesting ambiguities, nuance of a type generally unavailable on Twitter. To shout down Three Billboards as just a film about the redemption of a racist is a thoroughly woke response, hotwired into the struggles of the present moment, but also, I would suggest, a misreading of the character in question's efficacy come the final act, and of what they might be setting off to do as the credits roll. (It also assumes that Mildred herself has unimpeachable motives, which the previous 100 minutes haven't entirely established: my impression was that McDonagh was playing with the idea of the "strong female lead", either for shits and giggles, or because he sincerely believes that people are more complicated than the majority of movies let on. What if a strong female was utterly misguided in her beliefs and actions, and carried on regardless? What to do with all our hashtags and lapel badges and copies of The Female Eunuch then?) It would, at any rate, be churlish to deny that, on a scene-by-scene basis, McDonagh has a way with even the non-profane words and, in the bigger picture, with plotting that, however it's been assembled, still succeeds in catching the unwary viewer off-guard.

The performers, too, maybe: the less assured supporting players here stick out like maladroit thumbs, but as in Fargo, another much-laureled movie bashed out by professional wind-up merchants, McDormand senses just how much of Three Billboards is going on behind her character's back, and resolves to make her the centre of the film's gravity. Lesser actresses would find themselves forgotten about as McDonagh sets about dramatising the unexpected shifts Mildred's actions cause within the Ebbing PD's power structure, but McDormand digs in, becoming a thorn in both movie and viewer's side: the billboards, when we finally bid farewell to them, suddenly resemble extensions of a forceful yet fractured personality. Some of the film's success is incidental or accidental, then - credit the luck of the London Irish - but a good deal more of its provocation and stimulation is entirely deliberate: it makes for a most unlikely awards frontrunner, but in the scope of its inquiry, its outsider's eye for small-town ugliness, resentment and anger, its reluctance to make nice, neat and tidy, and its ability to provoke heated debate both online and IRL, this is the only film of the season to feel like a vision of modern America, and not a consoling fantasy.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is now playing in cinemas nationwide.   

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