Awards 2017: ‘Three Billboards,’ Two Angry People and Love

‘Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter,
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

Martin McDonagh’s debut movie begins with a poem by Irish poet Thomas Moore, “Last Rose of Summer.” Sung by a woman, the song’s words slowly pierce the air as the camera shows us three long unused billboards. The boards have fallen away and previous signs have peeled off leaving a mixed message.

The only words we can clearly make out are ‘of your life” and there’s a baby’s face. A middle-aged woman is driving by and giving them a good look. This isn’t going to be a happily-ever-after film, but this is McDonagh. Happy endings aren’t what he’s known for.

Writer/director McDonagh was first known for his plays that evoke a violent culture in County Galway, an area in West Ireland, where he spend is holidays as a child.  His first play, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” told the story about a forty-something woman grasping at her last-chance at love despite her mother’s attempt to sabotage the romance. The play earned four Tonys (Best Leading Actress, Best Featured Actor, Best Featured Actress and Best Direction).

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” (1996) is the first of the so-called Leenane Trilogy. The second play, “A Skull in Connemara” (1997) is about a Connemara man who is charged with digging up the skeletons in an overcrowded cemetery when he meets the wife he was accused of murdering.

In “The Lonesome West” (1997) two brothers live in the shadow of their father’s supposed shotgun accident with the intervention of a priest who hopes through his ultimate sacrifice the two brothers shall make amends by confessing and forgiving each other’s sins.

The Aran Islands Trilogy is only a trilogy in name because the last play, “The Banshees of Inisheer,” has never been performed. The first play, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” (1996), is  dark comedy that looks at the desperate allure of Hollywood for a crippled orphaned teenager when the production of a fictional documentary “Man of Aran” comes to the small community in 1934. In reality, “Man of Aran” made up some scenes and cast the best-looking islanders as supposed family members. The cripple, Billy, is able to temporarily escape, but the cost is great.

The second is the 2001 “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” which concerns the violent leader of a splinter IRA group who returns home after his cat has been killed, seeking revenge. At home, his father and neighbor attempt to avoid the lieutenant’s wrath while the neighbor’s sister eagerly awaits the lieutenant’s return.

McDonagh won a Laurence Olivier Award for this 2003 “The Pillowman,” a play that takes place in an unspecified totalitarian state where two brothers are implicated in gruesome murder of children.

In 2006, McDonagh won an Academy Award for Best live Action Short Film for his first film, a violent black comedy called “Six Shooter.” McConagh followed that up with the 2008 black comedy about two Irish hitmen in Bruges, Belgium, “In Bruges.” Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, the film won’t inspire people to take fun, romantic trip to Bruges because the movie ends with Ray thinking, “And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges. And I really really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really really hoped I wouldn’t die.”

Violence on an extreme level marks the main relationships in all of these plays and even his short so it should come as no surprise that “Three Billboards” revolves around violent and bitter interactions. At the center is two people whose anger singes every relationship they have until they remember love.

The titular three billboards are along an seldom traveled road in the small town of Ebbing. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a bitterly divorced mother of two. Seven months ago, her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was murdered, but there are no leads. Bristling with rage fed by guilt, Mildred rents three billboards and has large black letters on a red background that read:

“Raped While Dying”

“And Still No Arrests?”

“How Come Chief Willoughby”

In the suffocating confines of life in this small town, her angry message upsets many of the townspeople, especially the Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and one of his officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). What’s particularly shocking to Willoughby and a sore point for the townspeople is that Willoughby has terminal cancer. Mildred is well aware of this open secret but grumbles that it won’t help for her to complain when he’s dead.

Jason is not the brightest officer in a department full of racists and good old boys, and he’s been “too busy torturing black folk.” Like Mildred, Jason burns with an inner anger. Held back a year, he spent six at the police academy and is in his third year as an officer. He now lives at home with his grumpy, friendless mother.

Jason seems to look up to Willoughby as a father and that will be his ignition point.

Mildred is a woman scorned, her husband left her for an attractive 19-year-old woman of limited intelligence. Her conversations with her son and daughter are spattered with words like “cunt.” But her real anger is reserved for herself. Her last conversation with her daughter ended with the daughter saying, “I will walk and I hope I get raped on the way.”

Mildred replies, “I hope you get raped, too.” Sometimes our worst wishes come true and that haunts Mildred.

Jason was raised by racists. When his mother complains about a black person i a leadership position, Jason explains, “Things have moved on in the South.”

His mother replies, “Well, they shouldn’t have.”

McDormand brings shows little tenderness in her portrayal of Mildred, yet when her Mildred reveals her heart, it’s devastating. Jason’s swagger is slowly dismantled and he’s bewildered by the kindness extended by to him by those who he once considered beneath him. Wisdom comes from an unlikely source for Mildred.

What makes “Three Billboards” less bleak than McDonagh’s two play trilogies and even “To Bruges,” is Willoughby’s tender relationship with his wife and two daughters and even, his horses. Willoughby reaches out to both Mildred and Jason in a way that will oddly bring Mildred and Jason together. During the movie, they will have to face the victims of their rash, angry actions and find forgiveness.

McDonagh doesn’t wrap this up in a pretty bow; we have to wonder what will happen at the end of the journey that Mildred and Jason will share. “Three Billboards” gives us both karma and fate and examples where random acts of kindness can make a place a better world, even in a small town like Ebbing.

One of the best features of “Three Billboards” is its soundtrack. Besides the Irish tune, the soundtrack features “Buckskin Stallion Blues.”

I heard her sing in tongues of silver
I heard her cry on a summer storm
I loved her but she did not know it
So I don’t think about her anymore
Now she’s gone and I can’t believe it
So I don’t think about her anymore
If three and four was seven only
Where would that leave one and two?
If love can be and still be lonely
Where does that leave me and you?
Time there was, and time there will be
Where does that leave me and you?

If I had a buckskin stallion
I’d tame him down and ride away
If I had a flying schooner
I’d sail into the light of day

If I had your love forever
Sail into the light of day
Pretty songs and pretty places
Places that I’ve never seen
Pretty songs and pretty faces
Tell me what their laughter means
Some look like they’ll cry forever
Tell me what their laughter means

If I had your love forever
Sail into the light of day

I’ve watched “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” over five times. The framing of each scene, the cinematography, the soundtrack and the acting are all beautiful. The bitter anger is softened and the movie reminds us of the destructive heat of anger and the healing effects of love. And that the people we distain or even torture may someday be called upon to be our allies. But will they extend us kindness? We should count ourselves truly lucky if they do and hopefully we will find kindness within ourselves to extend to others.

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