As we reach the end of the year and Oscar season looms, I thought it would be a good time to catch up on a few blogs that I, for whatever reason, have not yet written. This is the first.
The subject of revenge is a strange thing in American cinema. Rarely is it explored in any meaningful capacity. The morality on display is completely binary. A person (usually a man) suffers some injustice (often a dead wife or child, sometimes even a pet) and pursues the perpetrator of said injustice, most often with violent intent. The protagonist’s actions are looked upon with sympathy; the violence they enact is supported and likely glorified. Though I’ve watched and even enjoyed many revenge films, reflecting on them in a more abstract way has always left me feeling uneasy. Sure, the protagonist has killed the person who wronged him, but what about after? Do they feel vindicated? And if so, how long does that feeling last? How long until they just feel empty? Musings like these are why I’ve grown fond of Korean revenge pictures, particularly those of cinematic wizard Park Chan-wook and his contemporary Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil). In Korean cinema, revenge is almost universally presented as a soul-killing pursuit: it’s ugly, masochistic, selfish, and often, ultimately, meaningless. Park Chan-wook dedicated an entire trilogy of films to the exploration of the theme of vengeance in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. Spoilers: nothing goes well for anyone. Why? Because these films explore not only the pursuit of vengeance, but the wounds that it leaves, and the withering cost of carrying hatred and anger within you.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri exists in a similar thematic space. Perhaps that’s why I like it so much. It’s a film set in rural America about revenge, but in no way does it glorify the pursuit. The story begins with Sam Rockwell’s racist cop Dixon discovering a stretch of billboards on a seldom-used road. They accuse Ebbing’s sheriff, played by Woody Harrelson, of not doing enough to catch the men responsible for the murder of a young woman nearly a year before. The billboards are the work of Frances McDormand’s Mildred, the young woman’s mother. Ferociously devoted to her cause, Mildred will let nothing and no one stand in her way, setting her at odds with her own family, the police, and a small town populace that just wants to move on and act like nothing ever happened. Mildred’s dogged pursuit of her daughter’s killer(s) grows progressively out of hand, pushing her to question just how far she is willing to go to see justice done.
The strength of Three Billboards lies in its deft handling of its characters. Written and directed by British filmmaker Martin McDonagh—who explored the humanity of two hitmen in In Bruges nearly a decade ago—the film’s memorable cast of characters manage to surprise and subvert expectations at nearly every turn. This is not a film simply populated by archetypes and McDonagh uses your expectations as a viewer against you. No one in this story is blameless and nearly everyone is deeply wounded in some way.
Mildred, in her quest for vengeance, has neglected to take into account the toll it’s taking on her teenage son. Though her white hot rage is understandable, it is largely aimless and without direction; it does not justify the eventual extremity of her actions and people suffer because of that. Willoughby, the town’s sheriff, wrestles with feelings of ineffectiveness while also facing down his own personal battles at home. Dixon, of all people, has a meaningful arc. A racist cop prone to violence, he is nonetheless cognizant of his shortcomings, and frustrated by his own stupidity. He aspires for more, but does not know how to proceed. All of these people are damaged and wicked in their own ways. That they attempt to do good does not exonerate them from their badness. However, one comes to see them as multifaceted people, all striving for something more. Overall, because of this deeply character-centric approach, the film feels like a complete tableau, one in which the interior lives of unlikely people are examined in a raw and meaningful way.
The wonderful scripting and direction (not to mention picturesque cinematography by Ben Davis) is elevated by a universally excellent cast. Frances McDormand has never been better. She conveys so much in her performance as Mildred. She’s a powerful woman barely hanging on, pushed to the limits of her sanity by a hopeless situation. Despite all of her brutally funny verbal takedowns, her scenes of vulnerability and doubt are the ones that truly stick with you after the film ends. The always excellent Sam Rockwell gives the hapless cop Dixon a sense of humanity that is troubling at first. You may never like Dixon, but you come to understand why he is the way that he is and Rockwell’s masterful handling of his character allows for his unexpected journey to feel earned. Lastly, Woody Harrelson makes an impression as Ebbing’s beleaguered sheriff Willoughby. He’s an honest man put in a tough situation that’s exacerbated by Mildred’s continued actions. Though he hasn’t found the killer, you come respect his desire to do so, even if he may disagree with Mildred’s extralegal methods. That he’s also battling his own private struggle makes a potentially flat character one of the most interesting in the film.
All of these characters together make a truly engaging, darkly comic drama, one in which no one escapes unchanged. None of the choices these characters make exist in a vacuum and the film is better for it, allowing for character growth that’s often difficult to find in American films concerning revenge. In that case, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a standout: a real “dig two graves” experience that asks you to question the actions of everyone involved, to give yourself over to their perspective, and in the end, make your own judgments on what they eventually decide to do. An excellent film.