Thursday, January 4, 2018

Between Anger And Rage: On THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI



"We're all dying", says Frances McDormand as grieving mother Mildred Hayes, at the start of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  She's told by nearly everyone she knows that besmirching the good name of a man with terminal cancer is shameful and petty.  After putting her teenage daughter in the ground, burned to death and sexually assaulted, in that order, she has little regard for the sob stories of authority figures.  Her town's dying police chief, the priest who begs her to find forgiveness in her heart, even the local news team, they're all complicit in the same system . The system that failed to find her daughter's killers.  That created men who could commit such heinous acts on a fellow human being.  That led to her daughter walking alone on that particular road, on that particular night, under just the right circumstances where one could get away with murder.  To hell with any God who would set up so perfect a tragedy.

When she pays to have a set of neglected billboards on a lonely stretch of road call out Woody Harrelson's Bill Willoughby ("Raped while dying-- And still no arrests-- How come, Chief Willoughby?"), she isn't trying to expose any corruption in the police force, or some great miscarriage of justice that's befallen her family.  When Willoughby assures her that he's taken every possible step to find her daughter's killers within the boundaries of the law, she's outraged that the law is being considered in the first place.  As she puts it, "If it was me, I'd start up a database, every male baby was born, stick 'em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him".  Three Billboards is a movie seemingly built from the ground-up by pure rage, a righteous fury which builds with each passing scene until it spills out of the screen and into the audience, who are left feeling as shaken and distraught as the characters they're watching.  For a little while, at least.  Because there's much more to this story than a parade of broken people and painful emotions, as so many films with similar ambitions wind up in the end.  It's an exploration of what happens to us when we let our anger become the only thing that links us.

If the Hayes family has one universal language, it's definitely anger.  It's there in every interaction, both with the outside world and among themselves.  Soon after the billboards go up, Mildred has a falling out with her son Robbie over their contents.  He'd chosen not to learn the details of his sister's final moments-- who would?  Her way of apologizing is throwing cereal in his hair the next morning, and his way of accepting that apology is to call her a cunt.  He doesn't have time to wash his hair before his estranged father (John Hawkes) is bursting through the door, screaming, cursing, and holding a knife to Mildred's throat.  Within a minute or two, they're sobbing together, briefly connecting over their grief, as if scenes of domestic violence were an elaborate greeting for them.  The dad who beat Mildred during their miserable marriage and is dating a girl just out of high school is the same dad Robbie rushes out to see when he comes over, the dad his sister was planning to move in with before her life was taken.  When Mildred tells her daughter, only a few hours-- maybe a few minutes-- before her death "I hope you get raped", it's the same to her as "Don't stay out too late, and call me when you get there".  When all you know is rage, what other weapon do you have against the immovable forces of the universe?

With the wisdom of a dying man, Chief Willoughby understands this.  His final act before taking his own life is to pay Mildred's rent on the billboards months in advance.  On the surface, it seems like an act of petty revenge: he acknowledges how terrible she's going to look shaming a dead man, and seems to get a kick out of the idea.  But so does Mildred, and a fuck-you-too from beyond the grave is as close to an olive branch as she'd ever be able to accept.  He's seen the truth behind her anger, revealed to him during some posturing of his own, a cruel threat to hurt Mildred's livelihood, interrupted by a cough of blood into her face.  "I'm sorry..." he says, crumbling to the floor. "I know, baby" she says, stroking his cheek, before running to get help.  And when the news comes that he's shot himself, nobody in the community is more shaken than her.  She doesn't really hate Willoughby. Nobody really hates anybody.  What we hate is the powerlessness we feel when faced with just how cold our lives can truly be, a line that keeps getting crossed no matter how further down we redraw it.  When we grapple with the fear that, as Mildred puts it, "there's no God and it don't matter what we do to each other".

Willoughby might as well be the President, or God, or the man who covered her daughter in gasoline and lit her on fire.  What we want when the sanctity of our lives has been violated is for some form of authority to take account of what happened.  We were here, and we suffered, and it meant something, and if we have to carry this scar then someone else should, too.  When Sam Rockwell's Officer Dixon learns of his disapproving father figure's death by his own hand, his first response is to walk across the street, assault the clerk who rented out the billboards, and throw him out of a two-story window.  Is that going to change a single thing?  Of course not, but the chief went and killed himself and there's nobody to arrest but goddammit if somebody isn't going to pay.  This desire to hold whoever's handy accountable for the cruelty of life leads them both down very dark paths:  For Mildred, it's burning down the police station, nearly killing Dixon in the process.  For Dixon, who risks his life to save the Hayes case file from the blaze, it's a self-destructive mission to bring the killers to justice, one that proves just as futile a gesture as the billboards that started it all.


As with his first film, In Bruges, writer/director Martin McDonaugh mines endless joy from humiliating Peter Dinklage.


While the film is timeless, one that could just as easily take place in 1967 as 2017, it's hard not to feel some parallel to this particularly dark chapter of the 21st century.  In an age when communication has broken down to death threats and meme exchanges between disagreeing parties, and talking about anything more politically charged than the weather can potentially end with your address and bank information screencapped on reddit, acts of hate are no longer just crimes we inflict in our darkest moments.  They're becoming a primary means of expressing ourselves.  At a time when forces beyond our control are radically changing our ways of life, and stories of unprecedented injustice are becoming too numerous to keep track of, anger has been fetishised into a commodity, no longer just a rallying-cry, but a status symbol.  If you don't have an ax to grind, then who are you, anyway?  Which isn't an inherently bad thing, sometimes anger is the deciding factor in whether you lay down to die or keep on fighting.  Human history is written by the angry.  But there's a fine line between the elemental, motivating force of anger, and the impotent, destructive cancer of rage.

What's the antidote to that rage, then?  Is it forgiveness?  Mildred is the last person who would ever say so, but she still finds opportunities to test forgiveness out, to feel how the words taste in her mouth before stepping foot down that road.  She experiences its release, both in her own small kindness towards the hopelessly naive teenager dating her ex, and in the off-hand way Dixon accepts her part in his near-fatal burning ("Well shit, who else would it be?").  Even the victim of Dixon's career-ending tantrum can muster up empathy within himself for the man who bullied and beat him, the simple gesture of pouring a fellow hospital patient some orange juice feeling here like an act of Biblical generosity.  Forgiveness is all around these characters, a pressure they can practically feel on their skin, like the air before a storm.  It's waiting for them, as patient as a mother, and if they could just reach out and take it, maybe there's a chance that some small corner of the world might finally start working the way it should...  but to forgive means to let go of the part of ourselves we know best.  We can trace the contours of our rage like we can our own bodies, we know hatred's every curve and crevice.  Abandoning so intimate a connection with ourselves takes a leap of faith only the hardiest of us can muster.

At the film's end, Dixon and Mildred are off on a road trip together, Little Debbie's and a shotgun in the back seat.  She's finally gotten from him what she wanted out of Willoughby, someone powered by outrage who's willing to break the law to see justice done, and now they're psyching themselves up to kill a man.  Did he have anything to do with the death of her daughter?  No.  But he is a rapist, and somebody has to pay.  These two have been united by a desire to curb-stomp the universe into making sense, but the glorious explosion of righteous fury that follows their discovery fades on the long ride out to Idaho.  It all seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, but the more they picture it, walking into this man's house, restraining him, putting the shotgun to his head and making him confess to whatever sins he's committed... it all just seems like hate and violence for the sake of more hate and violence, doesn't it?  Maybe they'll just beat him up.  Maybe they'll cross the border into Idaho and turn right back around.  One thing is for sure, though: she's not taking down those goddamn billboards.  They've become a home for her rage while she figures out what to do with it, and a dead man feels no shame.

- Jamie Marshall