Continuing our preview here at the BarnBurner of this Sunday’s 90th Oscars ceremony, my choice for the winner of the show’s most prestigious award goes to Martin McDonagh’s brilliant dark comedy.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or have only recently emerged from your frozen cryogenic chamber, you’re all too aware that we are currently in the midst of some extremely divisive times. Society as a whole feels largely representative of two diametrically different extremes. You’re either a conservative who endorses putting guns in the hands of murderers or a liberal who pines for socialism. You’re a religiously conservative homophobe or an equality inclusive “snowflake”. You get the picture. The era of in-between is no more. The gray no long exists. Civil discourse appears dead, as the common rhetoric now resembles platitudes filled with one of two extremes. Watch the news and you’ll quickly realize that, for the most part, people today are just so fucking angry at each other.
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri speaks to this. It’s a film full of deeply flawed and resentful people. Take the title character Mildred Hayes (played by the supremely talented Frances McDormand), for example. Dissatisfied (to put it mildly) over the investigation of her daughter’s horrific murder, Mildred rents three billboards to call attention to the police’s inability to resolve the case. “Raped While Dying,” says the first, “And Still No Arrests” states the second, before finally concluding her message on the third and final billboard with, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Naturally, this causes an uproar in the community, and produces hostile responses none greater than the retaliatory actions of hot-headed and Napoleonic cop, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
The film touches on a variety of issues altogether too familiar to those of the nightly news cycle: Racism, police brutality, the #metoo and Times’s Up movements. But none more apparent than how bad we have become at trying to sympathize and understand one another. It’s easier to hate someone than it is to love. As Woody Harrelson’s character, Chief Willoughby, remarks to Dixon in a poignant scene, “you’re too angry though . . . [and] as long as you hold on to so much hate then I don’t think you’re ever going to become what I know you want to become. . .”.
In spite of how different the characters may be or how little, if at all, they see eye to eye, the movie is about the importance behind and dire need of the proverbial extension of the olive branch. Willoughby, dying from cancer all while suffering public humiliation from the billboard stunt, has every reason to subvert his authority as police chief and make Mildred’s life a living hell. The same goes for Red Welby, the business owner of the billboards, who finds himself thrown out of a two-story window by Dixon only to shortly thereafter find himself face to face with a horribly burned Dixon in the hospital bed next to him. Seething with physical and emotional hurt, Welby takes the high road.
The film has received its share of criticism, as some people have taken issue with the typecast treatment of its characters (of course the dumb cop is a racist) or the redemptive arc of a person with extreme moral and racial failings in his past. For me, this is by design. McDonagh plays to society’s tendency to diagnose the problem without any discussion of the solution. And that solution involves a willingness to actually engage in civility that doesn’t revert to raised voices and name-calling. Take a look at social media. It’s not enough to tell someone why they are wrong. You have to “put them in a body bag” or “destroy” them. Take a look at the men and women of Congress. Social interaction outside of partisan politics is now seen as a weakness.
Three Billboards is a cinematic masterpiece that exemplifies society’s current state of extreme polarization. By acknowledging that, yes, the world is often an ugly place filled with deeply damaged people, is it so crazy to think a conversation towards trying to understand where that anger comes from couldn’t actually lead to some sort of middle ground? If “anger begets greater anger,” as is said in the movie, then damn if I don’t believe honest conversation begets greater understanding. As Willoughby powerfully conveys to Dixon, “Hate never solved nothing, but calm did. And thought did.” A powerful message with nearly flawless performances from a star-studded cast, there’s no mistake this year. Three Billboards, you guys won best picture.