Friday, February 23, 2018

Three Billboards (The Movie)

With just a week to go before the Academy Awards (and a Regal Gift card to use up), this seemed like a good time to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It is one of the nominees for the Oscars' Best Picture, having already won four Golden Globe Awards. It is unquestionably a well-made film, by In Bruges Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh, with superb acting - especially on the part of its three principal characters, Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the vengeful grieving mother of a raped and murdered daughter, Woody Harrelson, the town's popular police chief, and Sam Rockwell, his stupid, bigoted, violent, immature "mama's boy" deputy. The film also features young actor Lucas Hedges, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his 2016 performance in Manchester by the Sea. With such a lineup, the movie is certainly well worth seeing. 

That said, it is certainly one of the saddest portrayals of our present human condition currently on offer. Mildred, the grieving mother, is a bitter, vengeful woman, angry (so it seems) at virtually everyone and everything. Of course, she has a good reason to be angry (more than one good reason, actually); but the most public object of her anger, the terminally ill and very popular Police Chief, seems in fact to be doing his best to solve the crime, a crime which is no closer to being solved at the movie's end - after almost two hours of mayhem and misery - than it was at the beginning. What to do when what the situation one is so angry about has no prospect of being resolved to one's satisfaction? Mildred's answer seems to be to stay as angry as possible and to lash out at as many people (and institutions) as possible - and to do so in as irrational and destructive a way as possible.

The other characters aren't much better. All of them - Mildred included - have their redeeming qualities and are admirably capable of kindness to one another, in spite of all the harm they have suffered at each other's hands. But they are all caught up in the miasma that is life in that place at that time. What a parable about the quality of life in contemporary rural America!

Of course, the terrible tragedy that happened to Mildred's daughter, Angela - and by extension to the entire family and the larger community - has made everything worse. But things were obviously pretty awful in Ebbing even before. The one flashback scene - set shortly before Angela's death - says it all. In that scene, the family's dysfunction is front and center,  and the family members' mutual hostility is evident in the way they relate to each other - and above all in the pathetically vulgar way they talk to each other. (Hardly anyone in the film seems in the slightest bit capable of vocalizing a literate English sentence using words which would meet the minimal decency standards of Network TV.)

There are, presumably, other people in town. Apparently, there is a church. And obviously there is a school (which Mildred's son attends). If those institutions moderate the surrounding culture of misery, there is no evidence of it. The closest thing to a social center for the community is a bar, which tells us a lot right there about the kind of rural, small-town dystopia in which the characters are clearly trapped. If the individual and family lives lived by any of those other people in town are significantly better, we see no sign of it. Even the Police Chief's family life (seemingly so much more stable and satisfying than either Mildred's family life or the deputy's) turns out to have underlying problems.

Then again, of course, problems - even tragedies - are a part of life, and no individual or family can completely escape them. Rather it is how we cope with them that largely defines us. How well society equips its citizens to cope with their personal, familial, and social struggles significantly determines how well we survive, what kind of society we are, and what kind of people we become as a consequence. Three Billboards  illustrates how, at least in rural, small-town Ebbing, society has monumentally and abysmally failed its citizens. 

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