This review was released for the theatrical release of “Three Billboards …” in January 2018. On Monday evening, the film will run at 8:15 p.m. in the first, which is why we are republishing the text.
One day, seventeen years ago, the Anglo-Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh was on a coach and drove through the deep south of the United States. Somewhere in the corner of the country between Florida, Georgia and Alabama, he suddenly saw billboards on the edge of the highway that in giant letters reminded of a crime and at the same time insulted the police – for inaction. He forgot details, says McDonagh, but not “the immediate feeling of anger that struck me there”.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the film about this feeling. McDonagh transformed the fleeting impression of that time into the fictional story of a mother whose daughter, about sixteen, was raped and horribly murdered. When there was still no evidence of the perpetrator seven months later, the woman rents three billboards on the outskirts of her small town, charges the police, and even names the local chief of police, Willoughby, by name.
The immediate feeling of her anger spreads in the first few minutes. It is believed that Mildred Hayes, who will soon be giving a television interview, that local police officers prefer to torture black suspects, munch donuts and chase eight-year-olds for unauthorized skateboarding than to solve real crimes.
The signs point to terror in Ebbing, Missouri. But that’s not enough for the director
Mildred Hayes is a simple woman who can say tough things with wit and language without having to look down or flinch. It is played by Frances McDormand, for whose unique rough-legged qualities a number of star roles have already been written – not least by her husband Joel Coen. But this one is one of the best – you simply can’t think of any other actress who could heat up a stubborn men’s group with comparable verve and determination. She has already received a Golden Globe for this, an Oscar should follow.
But then what is surprising, especially in view of the gruesome murder in the background, is the underground comedy that creeps into the scenes from the start. Is it because of the dull cheek qualities of the auxiliary police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), whose escapades take up a lot of space? Or is it rather a nervous laugh because McDormand turns all the suffering mother figures in art and film history upside down? A woman who keeps all her pain to herself, but lets all her anger loose on the world unfiltered – that works over the top and therefore very liberating.
However, “Three Billboards” is not a real comedy. That becomes clear at the latest when the first big confrontation begins. Police chief Willoughby, embodied by the equally great Woody Harrelson, is not too bad to visit his prosecutor in her wooden house on the outskirts of the village. That’s how they face each other, he in his flawless white sheriff shirt with gold star and tie, she in a worn-out dirty blue overalls that she never seems to take off.
Mildred Hayes doesn’t let Willoughby into the house, defiantly sits on a children’s swing. However, he explains quite convincingly that the DNA traces from the crime scene do not match any database, that the regulations do not allow him to force every man in the area to test for saliva, and that Mrs. Hayes’ idea, all male beings registering with DNA at birth and killing the first offense, unfortunately violating all laws.
“We can’t do much more,” says Willoughby with a dog’s eye and suddenly looks at least as credible as his opponent. But she only stares unforgivingly into the distance. “By the time they get out here whining like a bitch, another poor girl is probably being slaughtered out there,” she finally squeezes out.
Then Willoughby sees the time to play his last card: he is seriously ill, pancreatic cancer, he will soon die. Everyone knows that, she answers. And when he really loses his composure and asks why she did his public exposure anyway, she only says: “Once you have died, these billboards would probably be less effective.”
At this point at the latest you can not avoid the realization that Mildred Hayes is severely disturbed – the loss of her daughter has made her a kind of monster. And her main opponent will then no longer be the terminally ill sheriff, who is successfully practicing the art of letting go, but his stubborn helper Dixon, who is even more disturbed than she is. He is the racist who is said to have tortured black suspects, he practices vigilante justice by throwing people upstairs, and when he is released from police service, he turns into a brooding time bomb shortly before the rampage.
So the signs point to terror in Ebbing, Missouri, flames will soon blaze, and there are serious injuries. But even this escalation would just let the characters get away compared to what the cunning puppeteer McDonagh was up to with them. His goal is a dramatic irony that is so hard that it hurts. For example in Mildred’s memory of the last exchange with her murdered daughter. After an argument, she gets neither the car nor the taxi money and then angrily calls that she will walk and hopefully be raped. Her mother’s last words? She also hopes so.
McDonagh wants to shake collateral; he even accepts a certain heartlessness
If it were only a matter of exploiting the unbearable, one of these narrators might now seem perverse. But since he doesn’t use the conventional keyboard of emotions, what does he want? Perhaps he is concerned with respect for the atrocities of life itself. After all, Mildred Hayes has to find out that Dixon – this simple, authoritarian, racist mother son – could be her last and only hope to atone for the murder of her daughter.
There are ironies like this. They are brutal and senseless, they contribute neither to moral clarity nor to the advancement of the world spirit, but fate serves us incessantly – and actually films should have the courage to show such twists occasionally. That was too much for some American critics. How can you put a figure like Dixon in the center – Sam Rockwell also won the Golden Globe for this role – his victims, the blacks in Ebbing, but degrade to absolute marginal figures? This debate will surely intensify until the Oscars.
What speaks for Martin McDonagh, however, is that his narrative focus does not only marginalize the black characters. The most blatant marginal figure in the film is the murdered daughter, who – apart from her terrible last scene – is not devoted to a single positive memory. Because that’s just not the point.
“Three Billboards” is best read as a metafilm. As a clever essay on the tendency of our time to make quick judgments, to build hard camps and to be absolutely certain how absolutely the other side has deteriorated. McDonagh wants to shake such security brilliantly, but he even accepts a certain heartlessness. He is not really concerned with murder victims and the feelings of her parents, he is not really concerned with police violence and racism, and he is even less concerned with real small towns in the southern United States.
What he is concerned with is the anger of his viewers, their feelings, which he repeatedly confuses, shocks him, and releases with huge question marks. The fact that a debate is now underway that wants to exclude him from all Oscar recommendations is only proven by the clear view of his film – and the accuracy of his analysis.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, USA / GB 2017 – Directed and written by Martin McDonagh. Camera: Ben Davis. Editor: John Gregory. Music: Carter Burwell. With Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage. Distribution: Fox, 116 minutes.