Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ★★½

Dislike being part of the "backlash," though it's frankly surprising to me that there weren't more dissenters to begin with—or maybe I just didn't notice. But this was a rough ride, despite the occasional bursts of adept storytelling and genuine feeling (the section with Anne Willoughby works well in isolation). Had a brief thought midway through that this might be based on a true story, not because there's any pretense to realism—behavioral exaggeration and punchy, flavorful dialogue is the default—but because it seemed absurd that any screenwriter would create a morality tale so bluntly manufactured for effect. (See K. Austin Collin's typically lucid review for a thorough unpacking of the moral "engineering" at play.) That said, it's not as if I'm opposed to this kind of limited register—which swings wildly between contempt and pity—especially since the story is so steeped in Catholic guilt. And while most of the micro- details are grating (e.g. the mother-daughter flashback), there was still something rather compelling about the macro- picture: the initial foil provided by Harrelson and his subsequent subtraction from the narrative, and especially the crossing moral trajectories of Mildred Hayes and Jason Dixon, with each starting from a moral high and low ground, respectively, and moving at cross-purposes until the end. Schematic as the construction is, there's still value in that the hunt for the culprit—the ostensible search for Truth and Justice—is revealed to be simply a form of self-destructive penitence, with the billboards as the clearest externalization of that theme. (Mildred wants to be known as "Angela Hayes' mother," she wants the town to hate her, on some level.) So the final scene (“We can decide along the way”) isn't so much a moral question of right or wrong, as it is a matter of how much blame each person is willing to shoulder until their guilt can be assuaged, until they finally feel like they've done "enough" (e.g. Dixon getting his teeth kicked in to collect DNA). But that's also why the aftermath of the fire is so disappointing, since it channels the ramifications of Mildred's self-destructiveness—you sense that she almost wants to get caught—into just another punchline. Still, it's hard to extricate those genuinely good ideas from the thudding tapestry McDonagh weaves; the operative word: culpability.

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