Martin McDonagh’s latest toys with absurdism to create something profound.
When caustic, grieving mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) meets local advertiser Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) in the first scene of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, setting into motion a chain of events that will impact the lives of Welby and a dozen other citizens of their midwestern town, the latter is reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard To Find. The obviousness of writer-director Martin McDonagh’s early reference makes it no less significant: both his film and O’Connor’s writing are ceaselessly dark, brutally funny, and almost unbearably honest about the emotions and desires of small-town Americans. And as with the repeated phrase in O’Connor’s titular story, which is at first silly and then horrifyingly ironic, the townsfolk of Ebbing often share words that fall pitifully short of describing the true depth of their pain and anger.
What McDonagh and this hyper-talented cast pull off here is fantastic: by juxtaposing insufficient platitudes with outsized drama, they elevate Three Billboards to the bruising, absurdist standard of O’Connor or some grand Southern Gothic play, all the while maintaining an honest an unpatronizing vision of middle America. Characters try to tether one another with the words they believe people are supposed to say–”anger only begets greater anger,” and “all you can do is try,” among others–but to his credit, McDonagh spends much of the movie letting each characters’ individual grief and hate and longing swell so much larger than any sense of poetry or causality.
After enduring several situations that in a more traditional film would lead to clear character development, people like Mildred, who is upset with the (lack of) investigation into her daughter’s murder, and the violent, inept cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell) still fall back into destructive and impulsive patterns. In Three Billboards, as in life, profound pain doesn’t leave just because you had a good day. Deep-seated hate doesn’t disappear when someone is kind to you. This is everyday America, McDonagh seems to be saying, in all its messy, dark-hearted glory.
The clearest moment of O’Connor-style absurdity comes late in the film, when Dixon reads a letter from his departed friend, an attempt to impart the foolhardy cop with wisdom (learn to be calm and to love, and don’t worry, “no one will think you’re gay” when you do) and hope. This series of letters is the film’s only obvious attempt to find meaning in any of the violence–murder, suicide, police brutality, domestic abuse, and bigotry–committed in Ebbing, yet unbeknownst to Dixon, a massive fire is spreading around him as he reads. It’s a perfect comedic image–slack-jawed Rockwell being encouragingly told that things are looking up, oblivious to the Molotov cocktails exploding in the background. It’s also a slyly tragic one; if Dixon doesn’t escape the fire, he won’t have a future at all. His first chance at true growth is almost stopped short by an epic wrong place, wrong time type of chaos. And while Dixon will get his acts of heroism before the film’s ending, they’re just as much of an ironic mixed bag as this one.
Meanwhile, Mildred’s abusive ex-husband’s new girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) gives her two cents. “Anger only begets greater anger,” she says, and since the aforementioned myriad violence has already taken place, her platitude lands more like a punchline. Penelope clarifies that she didn’t come up with it on her own but read it once on a bookmark, and her lack of awareness about the common proverb makes it even harder for us to take seriously. Yet for Mildred, her ignorant sincerity somehow makes the idiom easier to swallow. To this point, Mildred’s firebrand rage has exploded through each scene, but for a moment, she seems to take Penelope’s vague advice to heart. A bottle that was framed as a weapon becomes a gift, and monologue-prone Mildred gives an earnest, if terse, wish for the couple’s happiness. Plotwise, Penelope’s words are too little, too late–Mildred will pointedly ignore them again later–but after all the absurdity and bloodshed and crippling grief, in this moment she holds onto their simplicity like a life preserver.
In the end, Three Billboards isn’t fully analogous to A Good Man is Hard to Find or some play about the American dream gone rotten, but is a singular work of art that defies easy categorization. Like O’Connor’s writing, it’s relentlessly dark, and its characters, who fight and glare and doubt the existence of an afterlife, struggle to find meaning in their circumstances. But McDonagh does the tough, surprising work of slowly and deliberately helping us construct meaning beyond any that the characters can see. He works skillfully in the world of absurdism, setting fire–figuratively and literally–to the institutions that have let the folks of Ebbing down, but ultimately, he leaves viewers with a smidge of hope among the ashes.
In perhaps the quietest scene of the movie, Dixon tells Mildred that his mom used to say, “All you can do is try,” and although she meant “try to not be so crap at English,” he thinks it’s a good sentiment in general. This is yet another platitude, almost insulting in its oversimplification of Mildred’s hollowed out, furious life, but it’s spoken for a reason. As the film comes to a close, we see the people of Ebbing clearly trying to rebuild. They try to overcome their fear and anger, through offerings of wine or orange juice, DNA evidence or a new set of billboard posters. And despite the cynical, cyclical nature of McDonagh’s America, there’s beauty in the trying.