Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Fleapit revisited:Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.




Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a rollercoaster ride of burning police stations, bar room brawls, women being punched in the face, men being lobbed out of first floor windows, sons holding knives to their father's throats, and high school students being booted squarely in the crotch.

Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's sad. Sometimes people behave in realistic ways and sometimes they behave completely unrealistically. The film is sprinkled with fucks and cunts (disproving my theory that only one c-bomb is permitted in each American movie) and at no point do you have any idea what the hell is gonna happen next. Both the premise and the realisation of that premise are quite unlike anything else I've seen. Even if some of the more iconoclastic and taboo provoking elements of the script will be familiar to fans of previous McDonagh works like In Bruges.

Ebbing, Missouri looks like textbook small town America, almost a Disneyfication of such but Disney's dream has been debased by the unsolved, and seemingly uninvestigated, murder of Angela Hayes nine months before.

Her mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand), frustrated by the lack of progress hits on the idea of displaying the capitalised slogans I've listed above on a series of billboards on a barely used sliproad to provoke the police into action and Red (Caleb Landry Jones, so good in Get Out), a slightly less than professional local 'businessman', is more than happy to take Mildred's money and make this happen.

Other townsfolk are less than satisfied with this turn of events. Obese dentists, can lobbing youths, creepy visitors to the gift shop where Mildred sells ceramic rabbits, and even Mildred's own family all have their own, often personally specific reasons, for questioning both her motives and her sanity.

By-the-book police chief Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson with a furrowed brow, a kindly demeanour, and a cheeky grin), despite being namechecked on the billboards, is more phlegmatic than most, but even he has his doubts. His pancreatic cancer is an open secret in Ebbing but it cuts no ice with Mildred despite a grudging respect, bordering on affection, between the two of them.

His sidekick, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is a much thornier character and the representation of this racist, violent, drunk, inarticulate mummy's boy has caused nearly as many issues outside the film as Dixon does within the two hours of its screen time.

Dixon is an unapologetic racist, accused of torturing 'persons of colour', and often seen lurking around town bars trying to provoke a fight. Essentially he's a moron. Yet Willoughby indulges him to a degree that even in rural Missouri surely wouldn't, and couldn't, be tolerated. Willoughby can come across a bit holier-than-thou but clearly he's as determined to do the right thing and keen to see justice done as Mildred is driven to avenge her daughter's rape and death.

But does having a racist character in a film make a film racist? Clearly not. Racism, sadly, exists. You could make the argument that Dixon's racism isn't explained but how could it be? Racism is, by its very nature, inexplicable - either a perverted gut reaction or a hand-me-down from a generation who were force fed the perverted gut reactions of those who served, or were sold, a pernicious agenda.

Morally ambiguous sure, but I don't buy the idea that this is a racist movie. Dixon is the (second) least sympathetic character in it and even he, eventually, undergoes something of an awakening. It's crudely handled, no doubt, but this, as the aforementioned fucks and cunts should've alerted you, is not a feature that deals in either delicacy or gradual personality shifts. All is subsumed into a rollicking caper which may lack subtlety but, at no point, could find favour amongst the alt-right.

McDormand and Harrelson play it (mostly) straight while Rockwell, Landry Jones, and Peter Dinklage (as a midget, his words, who sells used cars and has a drink problem) seem to view the film as a chance to up the ante on their comedy chops.

On that the film is a tad confused but with winning performances from Lucas Hedges (essentially reprising his sullen, depressed, and sarcastic teenager role from Manchester by the Sea), Abbie Cornish, and Clarke Peters (from both Treme and The Wire) and small roles (that add little to the substance but bring plenty of flavour) from Amanda Warren (Mildred's friend, Denise), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Jerome), Samara Weaving (Penelope), and not least Sandy Martin as Dixon's equally unreconstructed mother and Zeljko Ivanek as a desk sergeant, it'd be curmudgeonly to deny that Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri is anything other than an utterly thrilling piece of film making.

Oscar material? Not quite for me. But with a soundtrack of Townes Van Zandt, The Four Tops, and Joan Baez (singing The Band's The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down)  I'd not be offended if musical director Carter Burwell was to pick up a gong. McDonagh can make do with the no doubt plentiful box office receipts. This is more blockbuster than art-house and there's no shame in that whatsoever.

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