Review: Searching for forgiveness in a town beset by violence and grief

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (photo: Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (photo: Fox Searchlight)

The three ratty structures that get star billing in Martin McDonagh’s inky-black comedy “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” still display faded fragments of the ad copy that used to greet drivers before the new interstate siphoned off Ebbing’s traffic, commerce and much of its purpose. The accidental poetry left behind, in words slowly being erased by sun and rain, have no real meaning anymore. Yet our urge is to try to make sense of them 1) because you cannot let down your guard with the cunning McDonagh and 2) because human beings reflexively and instinctively try to make sense of the inexplicable. And the unspeakable. And if they can’t, they at least try to find someone to blame.

“Three Billboards” is being widely touted as another Oscar-worthy vehicle for Frances McDormand, an actress of grim power for whom the vengeful Mildred Hayes is a career-defining role (as was her Academy Award-winning Marge in “Fargo,” but that was less of a dominant role). Mildred has surveyed the pitiable billboards, her wallet and her conscience and hires out the ad space for a year. What residents and visitors to humble Ebbing will soon read as they drive into town is as follows:

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“RAPED WHILE DYING”

“AND STILL NO ARRESTS”

“HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

Mildred’s teenage daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton, in flashback), died less than a year before, raped and then set on fire; the scorched place where her body burned is still visible; Mildred is seething at the lack of progress in the case and is laying the blame squarely at the feet of the local police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who, while understandably unhappy with the 40-foot-high attacks on his character, is not unsympathetic to Mildred’s pain.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” contains enough guilt to keep Ebbing’s confessionals busy for months.

Nor has Willoughby been derelict in his duty. He has done the investigative work; the DNA available has not been matched to anyone on record; the case, in danger of going cold, is slipping through his grasp. Mildred is unmovable. Maybe you should take blood from every man around, she says, every man in the country if need be; babies should have their DNA registered at birth and kept on record…at which point the viewer starts to feel his/her sympathies shift from Mildred, who is perhaps slightly mad, to Willoughby, who is charged not only with keeping order, but meting out that elusive thing called justice. And who also happens to be dying of cancer.

McDonagh has set us up, of course (as is his wont). The much-honored, London-born Irish author of such plays as “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” and the writer-director of the cult comedy “In Bruges,” creates a setting and a people who could be anywhere, certainly Ireland. And where he is steering things all along is toward the question of forgiveness—not for the perpetrator of the central crime in “Three Billboards,” but for the many principals touched by that outrage, and among whom there are many things to forgive. He is also on a jag about justice and why, in a civilized society, the victims or survivors of violent crime cannot be the administers of the law. As Mildred so eloquently demonstrates, there would soon be no law. Or rehabilitation. Or, for that matter, forgiveness.

“Still no arrests,” laments Mildred. “How come, I wonder. ‘Cause there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other?” She doesn’t believe it, though her grief is such that she might. She doesn’t rail wildly against the Almighty, though she does against the church. When a local priest comes to her home to urge Mildred to take down the billboards—because, after all, Willoughby didn’t commit the crime—she launches into an eviscerating diatribe about “culpability,” asking, since laws have been tailored to indict black gang members for the crimes of their cohort, why shouldn’t all law enforcement be held “culpable” in unsolved crimes? Or for that matter, why shouldn’t all priests be held “culpable” for the sexual outrages of their fellow clergy?

It is a ferocious moment but, like many in “Three Billboards,” one quilted with subtle, nuanced meaning.

It is a ferocious moment but, like many in “Three Billboards,” one quilted with subtle, nuanced meaning, not just about guilt and innocence but about the mental state of Mildred Hayes—and the bestial nature of unresolvable, raging grief.

McDonagh is never better than when channeling ideas through a, shall we say, stupid character. Colin Farrell’s guilt-ridden hitman in “In Bruges” was a dim bulb and a font of inadvertent wisdom. In “Three Billboards,” the sage ignorance is provided by Sam Rockwell’s Dixon, a lumpen-cop with a nasty swagger and a head full of just enough awareness to make him funny. “How’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon,” Mildred asks, referring to an offense for which Dixon apparently answered not at all. “That’s the person-of-color-torturing business,” he corrects her.

Mildred may be fierce, but she is not Wonder Woman. She is a little afraid of Dixon, very afraid of her ex-husband (John Hawkes) and slightly terrified when a man she doesn’t know enters her gift shop and makes threatening noises about Mildred’s scandalous billboards. Without spoiling much in the way of plot: The man in question will turn out to be an Iraq war vet through whom Dixon redeems himself, though not the way the reader might be expecting. What is significant about that character is how he conforms to McDonagh’s skepticism, bordering on revulsion, regarding the worship of authority and/or uniforms, whether they are worn by cops or soldiers, all of whom he sees as rendered less human by the tasks we give them, and who in turn reduce our humanity by the crimes they commit.

For all that, there is a great deal of comedy here, and a lot of great acting—by McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell, as always, but also by Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s embarrassed son; Caleb Landry Jones as the poor billboard ad salesman Dixon throws out a window; and Abby Cornish as Willoughby’s wife, Anne. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” also contains enough guilt to keep Ebbing’s confessionals busy for months. Thankfully, McDonagh’s theme of forgiveness is as big as a billboard.

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