Bitch on Wheels Careens out of Control

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film by Martin McDonagh.  With Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges. ****1/2

If I could sue a trailer for false advertising, I would sue the one I saw for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri, which seems to promise a hilarious comedy in which Frances McDormand releases her inner bitch and raises hell with a screwed-up police department.  It looked like one of those jaw dropping roles that only Frances McDormand could do.  In a way this is that movie, at least in places.  But the easy fun is over after about fifteen minutes.  The movie that’s left is much deeper, more serious, and more compelling than that.

Mildred (McDormand) has plenty of reasons to be angry, and to have bought billboards advertising her grievances.  Not only was her daughter raped and murdered and burned beyond recognition, on a road within view of their house, but her abusive wife-beating husband has subsequently left her for a nineteen year old bimbo, her son is furious that she has put up these billboards that remind him of what happened to his sister, the whole town is sympathetic with Mildred because of what happened to her daughter, but sides with Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in the billboard dispute, because of a serious mitigating factor.  Everybody seems to be against her, but she rages on.

Screenwriter and Director Martin McDonagh apparently chose Missouri because the state is associated with racially prejudiced police departments; the movie was actually filmed around Sylva, North Carolina.  Mildred pointedly baits the police department about race.  And the department, as represented by an officer named Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is spectacularly brutal and inept; Dixon’s idea of justice is to hit a beat a guy with a club, punch a young woman in the face, and throw the guy out a second story window, even though he hasn’t committed a crime.  Even in a conservative Southern town, that seems a little over the top.

McDonagh is playing with stereotypes, as he has done in his previous films.  If Dixon seems like a hillbilly hick, his mother—with whom he lives—makes him look like a British Earl.  But every time we think we know which side we’re on, McDonagh throws us a curveball.  The police chief we’re supposed to hate is seriously ill.  He also makes a pretty good case for why he hasn’t solved the crime.  Mildred is angry because of the way she’s been treated but also apparently feels guilty because of the way she sometimes treated her daughter, especially—by a cruel coincidence—on the last day of her life.  Her ex-husband is going out with a nineteen year old but the woman herself is rather sweet, and doesn’t deserve Mildred’s scorn.  And when the time comes to replace the sheriff, the powers that be in Missouri—by some miracle—appoint a tough-assed and articulate black man.

This is one of those movies that held my wife and me enthralled the whole time we watched it; it was only at dinner afterwards, when we started talking, that we had some questions.  Willoughby’s wife is a young beautiful intriguing character, but you do wonder how she happens to be married to a much older police chief in Ebbing, Missouri.  The way Willoughby handles his illness makes sense in one way, and certainly thickens the plot, but in another way it seems off the mark and utterly selfish, not what this man would do.  Mildred is mean to people even when she shouldn’t be; the scene from the preview where she kicks a couple of teenagers in the nether regions seems over the top, and certainly won’t help her son’s standing at high school.  And the one real suspect in the crime shows up out of the blue and acts in ways that don’t make sense.  The way the police discover him is coincidental beyond belief.

The movie finds its ultimate meaning in the final scene, when two characters go off to take revenge, and see justice done.  The fact that the two of them are even together speaks volumes, and makes forgiveness and understanding the other side the focus of the film.  It is like an earlier scene in a hospital between a burn victim and the guy who was thrown out the window.  The characters may be stereotypes, but they also learn things, and change.  Not all cops are corrupt, even a corrupt cop isn’t totally rotten, and a woman treated horribly by life doesn’t have the right to kick just anybody in the balls.  The moral complications and the ambivalent ending make this the most intriguing of McDonagh’s films.