Written and Directed by: Martin McDonagh
CW: This film deals with bluntly with sexual and domestic violence, and also addresses police brutality and racism (a focus of this review).
When you see a title as verbose as that of TBOEM (sorry, that’s what I’m to call it), you know you’re in for an unusual viewing experience. TBOEM is the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the mother of a rape-and-murder victim enraged at the failure of police to find her daughter’s assailant. She expresses her rage by renting three abandoned billboards on which she denounces the town’s beloved police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). The billboards are mundane in their color-scheme and brutally graphic in their words. They are significant in that they come to mean something greater to Mildred than the direct political purpose they serve. That said, the quirk of the film lies not so much in the billboards, as in the conflict they stir.
Harrelson is well cast as Willoughby, a character whose personality lies somewhere on the spectrum of Albus Dumbledore (powerful man with a surprisingly gentle soul) to Long John Silver (megalomaniac who manages to have a gentle soul on the side). Whether Harrelson is more Dumbledore or Silver depends of course on what one assumes about the film’s subtext (ie what the Ebbing police were up to when the camera wasn’t running). Political assumptions aside (we’ll get back to that later), Willoughby’s gentleness certainly stands out. While other citizens of Ebbing, which seems be a town where everyone knows everyone, are quick to denounce the billboards, Willoughby humors them and speaks empathetically of Hayes. He is simultaneously affectionate towards his loose cannon colleague, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
Willoughby’s gentleness enables one of the film’s notable characteristics: genre-bending. Willoughby speaks wryly and light-heartedly, despite delivering some quite heavy lines. The result of his characterization is that it frees the audience from having to simply experience TBOEM as a literal, realist story. Instead, audiences can appreciate the film as an exploration of how different kinds of police-in-small-town-storylines (fictional and real) in contemporary American can play out. Hayes’ son (Lucas Hedges) and friendly barfly James (Peter Dinklage) also make important contributions to the film’s wonderfully awkward gesticulations between its sombre and slapstick moods.
TBOEM is reminiscent of Coen brothers and Tarantino films. It features the occasional outburst of violence that is swept under the rug with relative ease. This violence, much like in Tarantino’s political works, Jango Unchained and Unglorious Bastards, can be read as a metaphor for the intensity of its character’s feelings, the violent oppression they face and the urgency and validness of their causes. More so than in Tarantino films, however, the violence in TBOEM boils up at a moment’s notice, giving audiences the particularly uncomfortable experience of not knowing whether to take it literally or even that seriously. Some of TBOEM’s violence fits into the story at such a sharp angle that it comes across as a very dark form of physical comedy.
TBOEM also attempts to factor racism into its storyline. This is where the film gets sloppy. Martin McDonagh made a film in which a police department is criticized for not working hard enough to make an arrest. It seems that he worried his message would be misconstrued as a claim that the problem with America’s police is that they don’t police enough. Therefore, it seems, he threw in a number of references to racist (and homophobic) behaviour from Ebbing police officers, particularly Dixon, so that his film would not be interpreted as oblivious to these ills. McDonagh includes three black characters in his script, all of who appear just enough to be remembered, but not enough to be memorable. For example, one black character, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested for marijuana possession, as a way of illustrating police racism. Denise, however, is never shown objecting to or suffering through her incarceration. Rather, her suffering is objectified as a self-righteous talking point for her friend Mildred Hayes.
Others have criticized TBOEM’s approach to race on the grounds that Dixon is ultimately portrayed in a sympathetic light despite passing references in the film to his “torturing black people” (and no suggestion that his racial politics improve). The film’s quirky style leaves it unclear what exactly these accusations mean: are they to be taken literally, or as grain-of-truth-accusations from his critics. On the one hand, the accusations are repeated and never rebutted. On the other hand, they are referenced so casually, that it is hard to fully accept that they are true. I can therefore, on the one hand, understand the criticism the film has garnered. In real life, anti-black violence from police is readily brushed over, so it makes sense that some viewers could interpret the film as a reinforcement of this unjust order. On the other hand, this critique ignores that TBOEM is not exactly a realist film; let alone one with clear messages. Dixon should not be understood as a person, but as a post-modern character who simultaneously inhabits (perhaps exaggerated versions of) different interpretations of white American masculinity. The emergence of Dixon-as-hero (and not exactly an angelic hero) therefore does not erase the problem of Dixon-as-racial-oppressor. I suppose therefore, I would defend McDonagh from some critiques while readily acknowledging that these critiques are a justified consequence for the film’s failure to meaningfully develop its own black characters
TBOEM brings together a great cast of characters into a story with well written dialogue and excellent melange of tones. Whether it will ultimately be remembered as perhaps this year’s best effort in narrative constructions or for its political shortcomings (and, as always, I hope both viewpoints can be understood and held in appropriate balance by as many viewers as possible) is a question that remains to be answered, though I’m sure its one this year’s academy awards will not fail to bring to a boil.