Anger (Or Misunderstanding) Begets More Anger

I’ve been wondering how to approach a review of THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.  As usual, my attempts to construct a more critical conventional view seemed challenging.  As of late, there is something that won’t let me get to the point of actively hating something the way I’ve seen other writers do. Obviously, I am not writing about our current administration, nor do I have any desire to tear down THE LAST JEDI because the former is a hideous mess and the latter is just simply a good escapist experience in my opinion.  I am writing about a movie that I feel has a lot of nuance.  Suddenly, I start seeing objections and disdain that I hadn’t anticipated walking out of the theater with my friend Marissa the first time we saw it at the Chicago International Film Festival.I thought it was one of the best portrayals of subjective misunderstanding.  So much so, that I even get the impression that a lot of viewers walk out enraged to where they maybe even misunderstood the empathic humanity underneath all of the bigotry and rage.  Honestly, the only hiccup I uncovered was when a character decided to sum up the overall theme by paraphrasing the famous quote of “hate begets more hate.”  It’s probably an oversimplification too, but I also think that people constantly misunderstand one another and can only be reactionary in hopes of ending up the one who is “right” in any given situation. 

Stubbornness stems from this and for many of the characters, their reaction goes beyond anger and ends up somewhere in the range of misguided preconception.  People even walk out with the preconception that a racist cop isn’t deserving of redemption.  Not in every situation, particularly ones that take place in reality, but I felt that Rockwell’s incredibly idiotic and flawed portrayal does deserve to potentially change.  Or if you wanna look at it another way, he doesn’t change at all since both him and Mildred are about to externalize their frustrations through the act of murder.McDonough wants us to think something is going to play out one way, but then it’s subverted for the better.  Some people roll their eyes at a scene late in the film that takes place in a hospital room, and ends with a serving of an orange juice.  For me, it represents the idea of redemption or change as being attainable.  Argue at the implausibility of those two characters ending up in the same room, but I am always drawn to the emotional output rather than the logical input of a scene.  Granted, that leaves me vulnerable to manipulation sometimes, which I can say that McDonough does lay his cards down with a heavy hand quite often throughout the film.  But for some reason, in this context, in this environment, it didn’t feel off-putting. 

Everyday, there is misinterpretation or cognitive dissonance taking place.  How one person perceives an interaction is often very different from how another person perceives it, even when reality sets it in stone as “truth.”  Whenever there is more than one person involved, we are forced to deal with how the other parties involved will react, interpret or misunderstand intent or context.  It’s because we are all different.  Some of us are fueled by empathy, and others are fueled by rage.  There is no one-size-fits-all method for dealing with grief as well.  Mildred clearly has lost her faith in humanity, the system, and faith itself.  When a parent loses a child or anyone close to them, they may say or do things without a filter in place.  Honestly, many of the characters in this film say whatever they want to without any regard for the other person’s feelings.  We as compassionate human beings take fault with this, and therefore might take fault with the film.  On the nobility side of things, these characters are, undoubtedly, the worst of the worst seen in the entire 2017 year. There’s something audacious about that, akin to what Tarantino or The Coen Brothers specialize in.  I know those filmmakers have even more style and creativity, but McDonough’s characterization here is kind of incredible.  Sometimes their actions stretch credibility, but my argument is simply that “They are acting irrationally due to an improper interpretation of emotion.”  Whether it’s grief in the case of Mildred, fear of death in the case of Willoughby, closed-minded outrage with Dixon… each character doesn’t know how to respond. 

One of the best moments of the year involves a sudden change of behavior when Willoughby suddenly spits up blood, and Mildred goes from misguided anger to caretaker in the blink of an eye.  That’s what the film is demonstrating throughout.  We may act one way towards someone in a given situation based on prior experience, but what happens when our perceptions of them are altered?  It gives us a glimpse into Mildred’s humanity with just a millisecond of dialogue and interaction, that somehow provides even more depth and dimension to such a capable and assured actress like Frances McDormand.I do wonder about McDonough’s sense of humor.  In each of his films, there is a modicum of dialogue that comes from a prejudicial place.  The word “midget” is used as descriptor, dentists are called “fat,” and people are singled out for their imperfections which seems to be played for laughs.  On a second viewing, I did begin to wonder about the creator’s personal voice in the proceedings.  I can easily make the argument that it is precisely the kind of reactionary response that hateful characters would have in this world.  But didn’t Colin Farrell also point out a person’s size/height in the film IN BRUGES, which is ultimately played for laughs? 

Not sure how necessary it is to inundate the script with jokes that take aim at a person’s shortcomings, but I don’t know if it’s the fact that we feel uncomfortable spending time with extremely difficult characters who probably do talk like this about people in the privacy of their own home.  It’s sad to think of what previous generations have said in terms of racism, sexism, and many other “isms.”  Now we share hyper-awareness in today’s culture of offensive terms to where it will continue to be jarring.  And we should be more aware, and considerate of others.  We’re not being oversensitive, we’re becoming more empathic for the better, to where we don’t even want to go to the movies to hear any form of hate speech.  In the case of this film, I think its language contains a lot of purposeful questions and complexities.  Some have said that certain characters are left as just that:  characters that do very little or have little to offer the story.  I realize that there may even be the non-white characters as well, but in this town, I fear that potentially happens due to ignorance and dissonance.  Maybe what's reflective in the film, sadly is reflective of what happens in certain small Midwestern towns all across the country.  Granted, this is more of a straight ahead story of redemption, revenge, and anger, but I am fairly certain that the writer / director here isn't choosing to make these decisions as a result of his own ignorance. 

There's no way to know for sure that McDonough is simply this British/Irish outsider looking in on American response to conflict, akin to what Lars Von Trier presented with something like DOGVILLE.  But I think this movie gets people riled up for good reasons, rather than immoral or unethical ones.  Powerful, resonant art will always bring up questions of intent and meaning.  There’s no way to know if a writer / director is being hateful or executed scenes without thinking more clearly about how people would perceive them.  Each filmmaker, just like each viewer, has different reactions and different executions.  Certainly, this is not a perfect film, but one that sits well with me because of the conflicted emotions I experienced.  I’m not sure if I would’ve had Chief Willoughby be married to a woman twenty years younger than him, for example.  Or veer off slightly to have the story detour more towards the men dealing with internal conflict, instead of Mildred’s grief and suffering.  One of the more questionable scenes uses the word “rape” twice in a way that I can’t deny, doesn’t sit well with me upon a second watch.  A soliloquy in the form of letters do serve to give some frame of reference, but it doesn’t absolve all sins, making the arcs feel questionable.  But I think being challenged and angered is better than being indifferent or ambivalent. I think finding the actions of both writer and character questionable actually makes the film a great success rather than a failure.  I don’t necessarily have the same euphoria I did the first time, but there’s no denying that it’s one of 2017’s most interesting films that only gets more layered with every reaction I come across.

James Laczkowski