Three Billboards, written and directed by Martin McDonaugh, has a cover story of a mother’s insurmountable guilt and grief over the murder of her young daughter who was raped while dying Compounding the tragedy of this brutal crime is the apparent inactivity of the police dept in working this case and finding the culprit. The mother, played by a fierce Frances McDormand, hatches a plan to challenge their complacency by calling out the police chief and reprinting the police report on three prominent billboards right outside the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. Several factors complicate this plan: the expense of the billboard rental, the fact that the police chief is dying of pancreatic cancer and the reaction of the town to this public disgrace.
Amid this set-up, you will find grotesque caricatures instead of real characters - American crackers who punctuate every word with the omnipresent F modifier along with other salacious references to female anatomy and disposition. This is set in relief by the letters written by the fatally ill police chief (Woody Harrelson) who is wondrously also capable of multi-syllabic, poetic expression including a reference to Oscar Wilde, straight out of left field for a small-town Missouri cop. Admittedly, he hears the name from his much younger Australian wife, an alcoholic who is inexplicably in nowheresville America with a much older husband, but she would more likely know the name Adele than Oscar Wilde. Mildred, the grieving mother played by Frances, is another unbelievable pastiche who is a formerly battered wife, somehow capable of standing up to the town’s authority and disdain, hurling Molotov cocktails to burn down the police station and contemplating the murder of an incidental bad guy not implicated in her daughter’s case. From the way she is played by McDormand, she would have killed her sadistic husband the second time he assaulted her, not hung around for years of abuse until the children were grown and her son could come to her defense. None of the details in these character sketches make any visual, dramatic or logical sense. Did I mention that there’s also a dwarf?
Rounding out the implausibles is the shiftless cop played by Sam Rockwell as a mama’s boy afraid to own up both to her and his own gay-dom. Though severely burned in the aforementioned fire at the police department, he is out of the hospital and his bandages in a week and mirabile dictu, he overhears a confession of a rapist sitting in the booth behind him at the local tavern. Though Frances has berated the local priest with her choicest potty-mouth expletives earlier in the film, one can only marvel at the author’s resort to a deus ex machina for some serendipitous clues.
If you compare this film with another one also dealing with a person’s guilt and grief, you will see the difference: one author going for easy laughs, casual violence and characters that are grotesques while the other finds the humanity in simple working-class people portrayed with understated honesty and true emotional depth. For that experience, revisit Manchester By The Sea, written by the incomparable Ken Lonergan who will take you inside the characters’ hearts instead of watching them from an insultingly superior perch.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here