MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson.
Mildred Hayes (McDormand) has a big problem. Her adult daughter was raped and murdered and those in authority don’t seem that interested in solving the case, now seven months old. But there are three billboards outside of town that have been empty for quite some time. So, Mildred gets a few thousand dollars together to rent the billboards, creating a Burma Shave sequence of signs that reads: Raped While Dying / And Still No Arrests? / How Come, Chief Willoughby?
Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Harrelson) hears about the signs from Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), his racist second-in-command, as he is about to enjoy his Easter dinner with the family. While Willoughby is visibly upset and perturbed about this public affront, he shares Mildred’s frustration with the way things are going.
As the billboards become the focus of local television news reports, their notoriety brings a sense of shame upon the town of Ebbing, Missouri, and Mildred’s teenage son (Lucas Hedges) suffers as his mother relentlessly pushes everyone in town to their breaking point.
Irish playwright/director Martin McDonagh uses this setup to create a black comedy of small town American life that unfortunately resembles small town Irish life. This is most apparent early in the film when Mildred attacks Father Montgomery (Nick Searcy) for his complicity with child sexual abuse simply for being a Catholic priest! Granted, we are not expected to sympathize with Mildred’s outburst at this point in the film (it is become clear that she is one seriously unhinged mother), but nevertheless it seems like a cheap shot. There will be other misfires to come as the movie fumbles while making points about racism and homophobia (while sidestepping any commentary about the rampant alcoholism on display).
As Mildred tests the audience’s patience, we see more to admire in Chief Willoughby while also getting a more nuanced depiction of the conflicted home life of Officer Dixon. All right, I get it. The world is not black and white. However, the world of Ebbing, Missouri does not even remotely resemble a 21st century town as much as it evokes the Main Street of a late-nineteenth-century western, with the quaint local saloon and the friendly sign-painter (Caleb Landry Jones).
I was never able to commit to this film and its quick character shifts that seemed to exist just to move us to the next unpredictable scene (a trait shared with many binge-worthy cable television shows). The violent moments are abrupt and brutal, and yet leave characters in the hospital bandaged up like Daffy Duck after a dynamite explosion. Even the cussing in this film (while plentiful) seemed rather arbitrary.
There is a lot of anger in this film as well as the desire for retribution, even when any mitigating rationale for revenge is absent. There is some kind of social commentary at work here, but there is nothing positive to take away from this bleak morality tale, filled with damaged people taking it out on one another.
Two halos: Great acting and unexpected plot twists are still not close enough to win a cigar.
Four pitchforks: Racism, pervasive swearing, violence, rape, suicide, alcoholism.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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