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Evan C

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Evan C   

I thought this deserved its own thread. Three Billboards is the first McDonagh film I would say is not a comedy. It's punctuated with a number of darkly comic moments, but the overall arc of the narrative is that of a tragedy.


Scott Renshaw's review nails precisely what makes this movie so great.

 

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When a local priest comes to visit Mildred and her son (Lucas Hedges) to encourage her to take the billboards down, she tears into him over the Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandals, in the kind of speech that gets audiences whooping in agreement.

There's just the small matter that McDonagh is implicating anyone in the audience who's still fully on board with Mildred's behavior. He provides plenty of context for Mildred's rage over victims not getting justice—including her own history with an abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes)—as well as her guilt over the circumstances leading up to Angela's death. What's similarly clear is that, at least in this case, the Ebbing police haven't actually done anything wrong. Willoughby has been investigating, and has simply run into dead ends. Mildred wants someone to blame. She needs someone to blame. Even if it's a dying, well-intentioned, well-respected police chief.

...

But the mistake would be continuing to think of Three Billboards as a story that congratulates us for cheering along with acts motivated by fury, even when we think the circumstances warrant it. As darkly comic as McDonagh's words might be, there's a grace and optimism here that could leave a lump in your throat. It takes a lot of nerve in these times to suggest that anger is rarely righteous.

 

Edited by Evan C

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The scene with the priest comes so soon after the scene in which Mildred demands that the cops violate people's civil rights that I thought it was patently obvious that we weren't supposed to cheer her treatment of the priest. Not least because *within the scene itself*, Mildred says she is attacking the priest on the same basis that California legislators attacked gang members who hadn't even committed the crimes for which they are being charged -- merely being part of "the gang" made every gang member "culpable" for what the other gang members did -- which sounds to me like another deeply problematic line of attack from a civil-rights perspective.

And that's just within the first, what, half-hour of the film? By the end of the film Mildred is on a truly self-destructive path, and pretty much every act of grace we've seen has been to mitigate the problems that she and other characters (like the Sam Rockwell guy) are clearly responsible for. If grace is increased in this film, it is only because people keep sinning.

Side note: I mentioned in another thread that last year's awards season was pretty rough on me because I kept seeing films that reminded me of my father's sickness and death (he died five days before the Oscars this year). And, well, wouldn't you know it: this film features a guy suffering from pancreatic cancer,  though he doesn't exhibit any of the symptoms that my dad did. So it looks like I'm in for another awards season of this.

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Evan C   
1 hour ago, Peter T Chattaway said:

The scene with the priest comes so soon after the scene in which Mildred demands that the cops violate people's civil rights that I thought it was patently obvious that we weren't supposed to cheer her treatment of the priest. Not least because *within the scene itself*, Mildred says she is attacking the priest on the same basis that California legislators attacked gang members who hadn't even committed the crimes for which they are being charged -- merely being part of "the gang" made every gang member "culpable" for what the other gang members did -- which sounds to me like another deeply problematic line of attack from a civil-rights perspective.

Good point about the previous scene and her demand for civil rights violations. We certainly don't know at that point how far her anger is going to take her, but the more I think about those scenes, they definitely seem to be the beginning of her not being a righteous heroine fighting for justice, which is how she's introduced.

Quote

Side note: I mentioned in another thread that last year's awards season was pretty rough on me because I kept seeing films that reminded me of my father's sickness and death (he died five days before the Oscars this year). And, well, wouldn't you know it: this film features a guy suffering from pancreatic cancer,  though he doesn't exhibit any of the symptoms that my dad did. So it looks like I'm in for another awards season of this.

Sorry to hear that; I hope there aren't too many more films in that vein.

 

On an unrelated note, this is at least the second film of McDonagh's which has explicitly referenced Don't Look Now. When Collin Farrell wanders onto the film set in In Bruges, someone mentions Roeg's film set in Venice. And in this Sam Rockwell's mother says she's watching the Donald Sutherland film where his daughter dies. Now I'm curious if McDonagh has referenced it any other of his films.

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Andrew   

SPOILERS AHEAD

 

I think it's a stretch for Scott Renshaw to say the Ebbing police haven't actually done anything wrong.  We only have the words on the chief's suicide note to assure us that a thorough investigation was done.  This is the same chief who says that Sam Rockwell's character is basically a good guy; never mind that before the movie started, his character had tortured a black suspect.  During the movie, we hear him casually make homophobic slurs and later toss an innocent man out a window after beating the shit out of him.  So I have to question, how valid is the chief's judgment on the investigation?  With events nationwide showing widespread corruption, ineptitude, and unwarranted violence in police departments - quite notably in St Louis and Ferguson, Missouri - I'm going to say that Mildred's frustration is more likely than not justified.

(By coincidence, I watched the documentary Whose Streets? the night after seeing Three Billboards.  This is the documentary about events in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of Mike Brown - an unarmed black man - by Officer Darren Wilson.  In it, we see footage of an interview with Darren Wilson, who presents himself as an ordinary family man, not unlike Chief Willoughby.  I wonder if McDonagh was thinking about Ferguson, in setting his film in Missouri.)

I certainly think McDormand's character goes off her rocker, and that Three Billboards is in large measure a social/moral commentary on revenge fantasies.  Gandhi's statement, that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, comes to mind.  Nonetheless, there are very few pairs of clean hands in this films.  The dentist, an offended upstanding citizen of Ebbing, was prepared to drill into Mildred's mouth sans anesthesia.  The priest had the gall to go into Mildred's home and attempt to shame her in front of her son, implying that a lot of her problems arose from failing to go to church.  He was totally due for an equally public ass-chewing by Mildred.  

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Andrew wrote:
: We only have the words on the chief's . . . note to assure us that a thorough investigation was done. 

Well, not just on the note. He and Mildred have a conversation early on in which he spells out all the reasons why the investigation never went anywhere -- and he also makes it clear that some of Mildred's demands would violate people's "civil rights". I don't recall Mildred questioning any of the actual claims the chief made on that occasion.

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Evan C   

I thought Scott meant that the Ebbing police haven't done anything wrong as relates to investigating Angela's murder, which is why he wrote, "at least in this case," and as Peter mentioned there's the first scene where Willoughby visits Mildred and details all the steps they took to find the killer.

12 hours ago, Andrew said:

I certainly think McDormand's character goes off her rocker, and that Three Billboards is in large measure a social/moral commentary on revenge fantasies.  Gandhi's statement, that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, comes to mind.  Nonetheless, there are very few pairs of clean hands in this films.  The dentist, an offended upstanding citizen of Ebbing, was prepared to drill into Mildred's mouth sans anesthesia.  The priest had the gall to go into Mildred's home and attempt to shame her in front of her son, implying that a lot of her problems arose from failing to go to church.  He was totally due for an equally public ass-chewing by Mildred.  

MORE SPOILERS

I absolutely agree; I don't think there are any clean hands in the film (maybe Lucas Hedges as Robbie and Caleb Landry Jones as Red excepted). As I said to Ken in the Ecumenical Jury thread, it's possible John Hawkes' line is too on the nose, but "all this anger only begets greater anger" is an indictment of the whole town, and I think McDonagh's point is that if you let your anger, however righteous, boil into rage you're not that different than Rockwell's Dixon, which is why Mildred teams up with him at the end. She didn't care that much about police brutality against blacks; it was a convenient club to beat up the police department over not catching her daughter's killer. When working with someone such as Dixon becomes the easiest way to fuel her anger, she's happy to partner with him.

 

Also, I think I'm in a minority here, from reading your review, Andrew, and other reviews, but I didn't think Dixon got a redemption at all. He shows he can occasionally do the right thing when the occasion presents itself, but that hardly absolves him from being a violent, racist jerk. Yes, the scene in the hospital was a hugely undeserved mercy, but that says more about Red than it does about Dixon. And considering his final decision is to become a vigilante and go murder someone, I just don't see that as a redemption of his character; he's just found a new source toward which he can direct his anger and violence.

Edited by Evan C

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Andrew   

MORE SPOILERS

Your points are well-taken, Evan.  It may only be a mini-redemption; the chief's letter to him prompts him towards greater diligence, as he saves the file from the fire.  But it's true, that going on a vigilante streak is not exactly redemptive.

On a semi-unrelated note, did Mildred say that her ex was also an ex-cop?  I thought she said something to the effect of "ex-cop, and ex-wife beater," but it went by too quickly for me to be sure, and the guy next to me at the theater let out a hacking cough at the same time...

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16 hours ago, Andrew said:

I certainly think McDormand's character goes off her rocker, and that Three Billboards is in large measure a social/moral commentary on revenge fantasies.  Gandhi's statement, that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, comes to mind.  Nonetheless, there are very few pairs of clean hands in this films.  The dentist, an offended upstanding citizen of Ebbing, was prepared to drill into Mildred's mouth sans anesthesia.  The priest had the gall to go into Mildred's home and attempt to shame her in front of her son, implying that a lot of her problems arose from failing to go to church.  He was totally due for an equally public ass-chewing by Mildred.  

I actually turned to Cindy when a certain character is exonerated and said

so, I guess it was the dentist

I'm glad to be wrong about that, meaning the film is more than a whodunit. But I wouldn't be shocked to find out there was a version of the script where that incident has more significance. 

 

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And considering his final decision is to become a vigilante and go murder someone, I just don't see that as a redemption of his character; he's just found a new source toward which he can direct his anger and violence.

Was that his final decision? Film seems deliberately ambiguous on this point, though I suppose you could argue that the arc of the film points in one specific direction.

 

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Andrew   

The more I think about the points made here by Evan and Peter, the more I wish I'd been more nuanced in my review.  Sigh.  Some good points, y'all.

This film still doesn't click for me the way In Bruges did, though.  Rockwell's character seems improbably dim, like an even more exaggerated numbnut from a Coen Brothers movie.  The music (outside of Burwell's score) felt distracting, rather than complementary, too.  It did have a nice cameo for Flannery O'Connor, however.

Edited by Andrew

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Evan C   
On 12/4/2017 at 6:43 AM, Andrew said:

MORE SPOILERS

Your points are well-taken, Evan.  It may only be a mini-redemption; the chief's letter to him prompts him towards greater diligence, as he saves the file from the fire.  But it's true, that going on a vigilante streak is not exactly redemptive.

On a semi-unrelated note, did Mildred say that her ex was also an ex-cop?  I thought she said something to the effect of "ex-cop, and ex-wife beater," but it went by too quickly for me to be sure, and the guy next to me at the theater let out a hacking cough at the same time...

Yes, she definitely said ex-cop, which was used to explain his rage over the billboards.

As regards Dixon, I'd say he takes a baby step toward being marginally less terrible a person, but he would still have a hell of a way to go before I would say the film offers him redemption, which if it did, I think would be problematic.

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