Fueled By Anger
How useful is anger? It depends on the cause, the reasons, and how it’s channeled. We’re taught that nothing productive comes from getting mad. Instead, you need to take a breath, calm yourself, embrace forgiveness, and let go.
That all might be true, but there’s a lot in the world that’s worth getting angry about. For example, a woman in Sherman, New York was shot and killed just this last Wednesday. Why? While walking her dogs at dusk, a neighbor mistook her for a deer, drew his pistol and pulled the trigger. No malice was meant by it; the shooting was just an accident. Regardless, Rosemary Billquist died the day before Thanksgiving.
I read about her death in The Washington Post while having breakfast. To put it bluntly, it pissed me off. Undoubtedly, it will piss a lot of people off. Someone out there will use the event as justification for stronger gun control or a firearms ban. Someone else will view that as persecution of responsible gun owners. More and more of us will seethe, accuse the other side of being pure evil, and move further away from one another.
That makes anger seem a little counterproductive, right? Maybe, but how many scientific innovations took place because somebody lost a loved one and wanted to do something about it? How many good laws were passed because someone knew a victim and wasn’t content to just let things go? In Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, we see how anger can be used both righteously and pointlessly, sometimes by the same person.
We’re introduced to Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a resident of the flyspeck town of Ebbing, Missouri. Her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was killed months earlier. Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is the Chief of Police, and his department has been doing their best to work the case. It’s gone cold, as sometimes happens.
Mildred simply won’t accept that. While driving down a seldom traveled road near her home, she sees three unused billboards. An idea takes root. She strides into the local advertising office with a fat envelope of cash and throws it on Red’s (Caleb Landry Jones) desk. Mildred wants to rent the three billboards for a year. They will read:
- RAPED WHILE DYING
- AND STILL NO ARRESTS?
- HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
As you can imagine, the titular billboards are designed to get attention. The plan works, local media gets wind of the story, and a firestorm is ignited. One of Willoughby’s deputies is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and he’s infuriated. Every small town has had a Dixon at some point, a local who genuinely loves the police force but is too much of a volatile dumbass to ever be an effective cop.
Chief Willoughby doesn’t care for the criticism either, but he understands where it comes from. On the one hand he needs to manage the unstable Dixon, and on the other hand, he’s getting pressure from Mildred. On top of all that, he’s dying from pancreatic cancer, and he knows that his days with his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and their daughters are coming to an end.
In some alternate dimension, a version of this movie was made where the story is about Mildred hunting for her daughter’s killer. That version is more of a mystery, and it ends with everything satisfactorily wrapped up and Mildred learning to move beyond anger to a place of acceptance. That seems nice, right? Fortunately, the movie we got is smarter, funnier, and more layered. Rather than law and order, this film is about cause and effect.
Martin McDonagh directed, and if you judged Three Billboards based on the trailer alone, you might be fooled into thinking it’s a black comedy chock full of zingy quips and violence, somewhat like The Boondock Saints.* Unlike The Boondock Saints, Three Billboards is a good movie that’s actually about something. Along with cinematographer Ben Davis, McDonagh has made a handsome film that’s adept at changing tone quickly but naturally. The musical score from Coen Brothers regular Carter Burwell effectively pushes the film to the next level.
If you’ve seen McDonagh’s other films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, you know he’s not a particularly flashy filmmaker. His strengths lie in coaxing out great performances and providing the actors with remarkable scripts. Here, he gives us complex characters and forces us to question our sympathies. At times, we’ll question if Mildred is doing the right thing and we’ll feel genuine sympathy for Dixon. No easy answers are found here. I know, it all sounds pretty heavy. Does it make you feel better knowing that this was also one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year? McDonagh excels at deft wordplay liberally sprinkled with some truly impressive profanity. He knows that profanity is like a spice, and when used correctly by a skillful chef, its addition can enhance the flavor of a meal.
It’s ridiculous what a perfect cast we have here. Small roles filled by the likes of John Hawkes, Sandy Martin and Zeljko Ivanek are wonderful, and I particularly loved the mighty Peter Dinklage playing the “town midget” with a sweet crush on Mildred. Who would have thought back in the days of Cheers that Woody Harrelson could make so many smart and interesting calibrations of his good ol’ boy schtick? His Willoughby is a thoughtful guy trying to do right against a ticking clock.
Sam Rockwell does some of his best work as Dixon. He’s put on a little weight for the role, and it makes Dixon seems like the kind of guy that shotguns a beer just before bed and maybe one as soon as he gets up. Like Mildred, Dixon is angry at being screwed over by the world. He’s not a bad guy, just one who isn’t too bright and doesn’t usually have the self-awareness needed to channel his rage towards something useful.
As Mildred, Frances McDormand is astonishing. That’s not surprising, considering she can do more with a glance or a glare than many actors can do with an entire monologue. Give McDormand a monologue, though, and watch a master in action. She’s got one here where she’s talking with a priest that’s an all-timer. She lets us feel the pain inside her, how it’s tearing her apart. Anger ebbs and flows, and we see her reacting to hers with tears, with weaponized sarcasm, and with grim determination. Mildred is also given some grace notes, and there’s a scene with a deer that’s just lovely. McDormand has a performance that’s fully realized and that should get her another Oscar.
By the time you finish reading this, something will have happened in the world that will make you angry. A child will die. Corruption will go unpunished. Our country, rightly or wrongly, finds daily reasons to become enraged. The world isn’t fair, so what are we supposed to do with all that anger? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells us that anger can have its uses, and it does so in a way that’s funny, profound, and heartbreaking. This is one of the best films of the year.
*Yep, The Boondock Saints is all style and no substance. Come at me, bros.