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November 19, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouri_ver3The title “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” sounds like an oh-so-earnest independent movie based on [ostensibly] real life events that NPR would rally around as a true-to-life depiction of a small town community in the Midwest. It's a clever hook because it fits the deceptive tone of this hilarious satire so well.

And, indeed, that is exactly what NPR’s tone-deaf film critic Bob Mondello took away from this cleverly concealed pitch black comedy based on the age old thesis that “violence begets violence.” Of course, the movie is anything but a fact-based rendition of an actual location in America. Oh the beauty of a well-made allegory.

Well-crafted filmic satires, such as this one from writer/director Martin McDonagh, can sail over the heads of viewers such as Mondello, and still land heads-up every time because they subvert cinematic clichés and dyed-in-the-wool social mores.

Martin McDonagh’s 2008 debut feature “In Bruges” made a splash for its self-referential setting — not unlike “Three Billboards” — that the sharp witted filmmaker utilized to maximum dramatic, and humorous, effect. Since then, McDonagh has made only one other movie (the over-cooked “Seven Psychopaths”) before creating a satire so scathing and cynical that many audiences will take the film’s sucker-punches without even knowing where, why, or even that they’ve been hit.

Francis McDormand

A key element of McDonagh’s subversive success lies in the equal balance he gives to his characters. Each one is revealed in fully formed ways that allow the audience to feel connected to his or her personal perspective without being expected to judge them beyond their immediate actions. For all of its anger and violence, this movie is filled with love.

Frances McDormand’s Mildred is a single mother to a teenaged son (played by Lucas Hedges) and to Angela (Kathryn Newton), a similarly aged daughter who was “raped while dying” seven months prior to where our story begins. Understandably distraught over the local police department’s inability to track down her daughter’s killer, Mildred decides to rent out three dilapidated billboards that sit 100 yards from her front door, on a rural backroad that few people travel on anymore. A giant black font on a bright red background connects the three billboards in a unifying all-cap message of furious discontent. In close succession the billboards tell the story. “RAPED WHILE DYING” leads to “AND STILL NO ARRESTS” before attacking Woody Harrelson’s local police chief with, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY.”

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We, the audience, are effortlessly drawn to empathize with Mildred whose outrage seems utterly justified. Chief Willoughby’s personal visit with Mildred exposes his doomed fate with death due to a cancer that threatens to dismantle the search for Angela’s murderer even more. During the scene we get a taste of Mildred’s escalating bitterness. She doesn’t invite sheriff Willoughby inside her house. When the cop discloses his medical dilemma, Mildred callously responds that everyone is dying. Tuned-in audiences might begin to pull back from empathizing with Frances McDormand’s reliably unreliable protagonist.

After the town’s [anti-Mildred] dentist attempts to extract a tooth from Mildred without anesthetizing her first, Mildred wrangles away the drill and buries it deep into the doctor’s thumbnail. For as funny as the scene plays, the violence is disturbing, just as such a thing would be in real life.

Sam rockwell

Mildred’s mirror character is Sam Rockwell’s unhinged dumb-as-bricks police officer Dixon. Sam Rockwell’s keen performance is stunning for his unfettered ability to weave between slapstick and realism with deceptive grace. As the plot plays out, the filmmakers shore up the seeming opposites that unify Dixon and Mildred. In the end we are able to access the victims and the abusers for the harassment and violence they attract, and inflict, on themselves and those around them. This is not a true-to-life depiction of a small town community in America; it is an allegory of Western culture’s ideology of revenge that permeates everything we do in a society overrun with brutality and violence. Figuring out when to laugh or cry, and why, is what this unforgettable black comedy is all about. You'll do both. 

Rated R. 115 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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