Being a persistent advocate of the viewpoint that the value of art is necessarily contextual – and popular artforms such as cinema and television even more so – I am occasionally brought up short by the realization that a worthy artwork may be slighted simply because critics can’t help comparing it to something else in its own genre that’s arguably better. This week, I fear that may be happening to Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Not that it isn’t getting enthusiastic reviews; it is. But some of my ilk are finding it necessary to characterize the film as less than great, simply because it isn’t Fargo.
Right up front, I’m going to break ranks here and declare Three Billboards a great movie – perhaps my favorite of 2017, and destined for many a Best Picture 2017 shortlist. This is a work that needs to be evaluated on its own strengths. But I won’t dispute that the comparisons to the 1996 Coen Brothers classic are pretty much inevitable.
Though we don’t get as deep a dive into the quirks of place in Three Billboards as distinguished Fargo as the flagship of a new “Upper Midwestern Gothic” genre, the Coenesque regional atmospherics are reinforced by the employment of the brothers’ usual scoremeister Carter Burwell. The very-funny-but-very-black humor – exchanges that make you laugh at loud, then look around embarrassed when the rest of the audience isn’t necessarily laughing with you because it’s so tasteless – will also feel familiar to Coen Brothers fans, as will the sudden outbursts of messy violence.
Reviewing the reviewers, one will quickly pick up on the many references to this being “Frances McDormand’s finest performance since Fargo,” her Oscar-winner. Here again she plays a tough, unglamorous, driven woman trying to get to the bottom of a heinous crime in a Middle American backwater – though further south, this time, and more replete with racial tensions. And once again, her work is astoundingly good. This is not an actress afraid of coming off as abrasive and unsympathetic, even when she’s portraying a protagonist who needs to have the audience in her corner from the get-go and all the way home.
And boy, does she nail it. Three Billboards’ Mildred is a take-no-crap woman who clearly pushed people’s buttons even before she had her soul turned inside-out by the brutal rape, murder and immolation of her teenage daughter seven months before the action of the story takes place. We feel her need to get at the truth, even if it means alienating most of her homies by putting up those billboards challenging the local police force to get off their butts. Soon enough, we see her taking things way too far in the name of justice, even vengeance; we begin to find flaws in both her motivation and her tactics; but we’re still with her.
Some may roll their eyes at the prospect of yet another kickass heroine at a time when kickass heroines are in peril of being nominated Cliché of the Year. Others will happily point to McDormand’s latest creation as the personification of the zeitgeist, with the movie’s release coinciding with a tsunami of revelations about sexual assaults and abuse by men in high places. Mildred is actually a character much more complex than that, and it’s much to the credit of screenwriter/director Martin McDonough – a playwright probably better-known for stageworks like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan than for previous films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths – that he gives the same gift to pretty much every character in Three Billboards: No one, by the end, turns out to be quite the person we thought they were in the beginning.
This is a story replete with unexpected twists, but they tend to be more grounded in character than in narrative per se. McDormand’s primary foils – Sam Rockwell as a volatile, dumb-as-dirt, racist, homophobic smalltown cop and Woody Harrelson as his well-meaning boss – also totally sell the changes and nuances in their characters. The supporting cast is mostly terrific as well, notably Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, Sandy Martin, Clarke Peters, Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes. The people they play are nearly all jerks to some degree, but not beyond redemption. That’s why we learn to love them all. They’re human.
Redemption is mostly what Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is about. Or you could call it empathy or compassion or forgiveness – that miraculous human force that incrementally works its way under our skin in revelations as sudden as the screenplay’s impulsive acts of assault or arson. There’s a tiny moment of generosity in a hospital room, involving a cup of orange juice, that might be called the crux around which this whole story turns. If you can get past that orange juice bit without having to fight back tears, your humanity is in trouble.