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Oscar Quest 2018: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Three Billboards!

Frances McDormand: as intimidating as a Terminator, even without a gun.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

This time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1997 to the present. As of February 21st I’ve officially seen all nine of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I’m not sure I’ll be able to cover the others in full before the Oscars telecast on March 4th, but let’s see how far I can get before I burn out.

Onward to nominee #8: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which UK filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) creates his own stylized take on small-town life in the American Midwest and how it might look if one horrifying incident turned half the townspeople into Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Out in a part of the Midwest where everyone talks like the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket, Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand (Fargo) is grieving yet helplessly furious that her daughter Angela’s rape/murder has gone unsolved for months. She decides the local police just need an impolite goosing and scrounges together enough cash to rent a trio of abandoned billboards on a stretch of county road no one ever travels anymore. Soon her giant-sized super-tweets attract attention, stir up trouble, and set off a domino chain of unfiltered confrontations all over, and not just with the authorities.

Meanwhile at police HQ, Sheriff Woody Harrelson has his hands tied because, as he’s quick to remind her up front, they’ve already explored all possible avenues of crime scene analysis (within their budget) and persons of interest (which weren’t many), come up empty-handed and not discovered any new leads along that cold trail. But angry Mom wants somebody to do something anyway, anything, magically somehow, Or Else. Not helping matters overmuch is Deputy Sam Rockwell, character actor extraordinaire from Galaxy Quest to Moon and beyond — a racist, an idiot, and a racist idiot who keeps stepping in the way and exemplifies how some employers aren’t too good at enforcing baseline job qualifications.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea) is McDormand’s surviving child, no less sorrowful over his sister’s death but a bit readier to move on with his life. Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out, X-Men: First Class) is the skeevy guy at the advertising agency in charge of billboard rental. Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage is a random nice guy who keeps wandering into the shot so we can see the mullet they’ve forced on him.

Zeljko Ivanek, who’s been law enforcement in Homicide: Life on the Street and like 500 other shows, is once again a cop. John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) is McDormand’s ex-husband and father of the victim. Abbie Cornish (Sucker Punch) is Sheriff Harrelson’s Concerned Wife™. Nick Searcy, Michael Shannon’s even angrier boss from The Shape of Water, has one scene as the resident Catholic priest who comes to regret trying to console McDormand.

From the Department of MCC Gratuitous Mentions of The Wire, we get two such veterans: when everything goes haywire later at the police station, the reins are handed over to meddling yet necessary Clarke Peters, a.k.a. Detective Lester Freamon himself; and Darrell Britt-Gibson, one of Marlo Stanfield’s second-tier soldiers named O-Dog, is the ad agency’s billboard installation guy just doing his job.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? “Violence begets more violence” is the advice pronounced by Hawkes’ dimwitted YA girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving), who’s inspired by her reading to accidentally sum up how things fall apart in the film’s second half. Beyond her well-meaning secondhand bromide, other Morals of the Story may or may not include:

* Anger also begets more anger
* Everyone grieves differently, some more loudly than others
* Folks want to be helpful but sometimes they just can’t be
* Detective work is hard
* Not every cold case is solvable
* It’s entirely possible to set differences aside when graver matters get right up in your face
* Even racists can act nice, do an occasional smart thing, and learn from a few of their mistakes
* If someone you know is racist or just really dumb, you probably don’t want to know what their parents are like
* Cancer sucks
* If we can’t solve our own problems, sometimes it feels redemptive to help someone else with theirs
* Billboards guarantee awareness of their subject matter, if not always the desired results

Nitpicking? Three Billboards contains more profanity than this year’s other eight Best Picture nominees combined. Literally. There’s a website that counts F-words in movies that helped me do the actual math. Yes, I included Get Out.

We previously saw an unflattering portrait of Missouri backwoods life in Winter’s Bone, but that cast of characters had the excuse of being mostly meth addicts. McDonagh’s vision of an average community in the same state sounds more like what films about bitter Irishmen used to sound like. (Maybe they still do. It’s been a while for me.) And it’s not just Hollywood’s standard fetishization of harsh language — here, everyone is relentlessly cruel and pervasively insulting to each other, dining on three square meals of black humor a day and spitting the rotted rinds at whoever’s nearest. Isolated parts are wickedly funny here and there, but the stand-up-comic ambiance gets monotonous after a while. (I already said my piece at length on this in my old review of The Wolf of Wall Street.)

The tone might be understandable if we could lay some blame on the corruptive aftershocks of the murder of Angela Hayes. That theory is dispelled in a single key flashback, Mom’s memory of the last time she saw Angela alive. The two of them plus the kid brother are in the kitchen at breakfast, tearing into each other with gusto like Comedy Central roasts are just part of their morning routine. We learn Mom regrets her last words to her daughter; we also learn they were all this horrible to each other long before she was killed. That knowledge effectively removes a dimension from McDormand’s otherwise powerhouse performance: the difference in her life before and after Angela’s death is…well, basically she’s the exact same except now she’s one kid short.

So what’s to like? Meanwhile at the sheriff’s station is where we find the best comedy as well as some new tragedy. Sheriff Woody would love to solve Angela’s case for its own sake and get Mom off his back, but he’s got his own problems, one of which he can’t ignore. He seems like the smartest guy in the room for lack of competition, their leader for a reason, and yet he has limits to how many burdens he can shoulder. Harrelson skips back and forth from droll sarcasm to weary resignation with consummate skill.

But the big MVP of all this ruckus is Sam Rockwell. As Deputy Dixon, he’s a big, weaselly ball of ignorance, incompetence, and swagger all rolled up together and smashed flat. He’s the nimrod who scores the deepest mocking laughter at his own expense, displaying maybe half an ounce of policing knowhow to justify how he got the job through any means short of nepotism. This thickheaded cross between Barney Fife, Michael Scott, and Rod Steiger’s henchmen from In the Heat of the Night commits one of the film’s most senseless aggro lashings, and yet, once he hits rock bottom at full speed, we begin seeing the barest glimpses into the remotest possibility that maybe — just barely maybe — he might be able to do something with his tragically misshapen life, assuming a genie doesn’t grant anyone else’s wish for a storm of anvils upon his skull.

When it’s not trying to make southerners look edgy to the extreme, Three Billboards is an intense study of bereavement, revenge, the search for closure by any means necessary, and how to live with unanswerable questions. Making the viewer frequently uncomfortable is part of the mission statement, but some viewers may find it’s championing the wrong kind of discomfort.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Three Billboards end credits, but they do confirm the film’s deepest, darkest secret: it was filmed in North Carolina, not Missouri. I’m guessing anyone in Missouri who saw the screenplay in advance probably didn’t dispute the decision.

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