Combine the quirky characters of the master of quirk, Wes Anderson, and sensibility of adolescent wish fulfillment fantasy director Quentin Tarantino, and what do you end up with? The year's most overrated "black comedy," Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It's the work of playwright by trade, Martin McDonagh, who's been quoted as saying that he prefers writing for film over theater (why couldn't he stick with the stage if that's his primary area of expertise?).
McDonagh's strategy is to appeal to both liberals and conservatives but in the end he remains squarely in the liberal camp. He serves up absurd characters that appeal to the baser elements in our culture but infuses them with "hearts of gold" so they appear to straddle both liberal and reactionary fences, but actually exist in none.
Take for example his main character, Mildred Hayes (played by a haggard-looking, one-note Frances McDormand) who puts up the three billboards outside of town, frustrated by Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his small town police department's inability to catch the man who murdered her daughter seven months earlier. The foul-mouthed Hayes functions outside the law and McDonagh throws a bone to reactionaries, asking us to approve of Hayes' desire for revenge and endorsement of vigilantism.
McDonagh's other rebel is Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist who tries to top Hayes in her quest to be the top-rated anti-social misfit in town. First he arrests Hayes' co- worker pal Denise on trumped up marijuana possession charges and after he learns of Sheriff Willoughby's suicide following the revelation of a cancer diagnosis, he goes after Red (the man responsible for renting the billboards to Hayes) and throws him out a second floor window (instead of arresting him, the new black police chief merely fires him! What's up with that?).
Just like Hayes, Dixon finds a scapegoat to assuage his guilt over Sheriff's Willoughby's death. When Hayes finds her billboards ablaze, she naturally pins the blame on Dixon and firebombs police headquarters.
It's at this point that McDonagh rather simplistically attempts to redeem his protagonists. The saintly, all- knowing Willoughby, in a letter he leaves for Dixon after his death, reassures the errant former officer that he's not such a bad guy after all, provided that he gives up his bigoted ways.
After Dixon survives the firebombing at the police station where he went to read Willoughby's letter, he decides to help Hayes after overhearing a potential suspect who might have killed her daughter. During a fight with the suspect in the bar, he manages to obtain the man's DNA. In an original plot twist, the DNA does not match and the potential murderer is ruled out as a suspect in Hayes' daughter's death.
With Hayes apologizing to Dixon for the firebombing of the police station (she escapes being charged aided by an alibi from a dwarf who lives in town), the two vigilantes make their way to Idaho to seek revenge on the now ruled out suspect in Hayes' daughter's death, as they are convinced he's guilty of other crimes of rape, and deserves punishment.
McDonagh, however, is uneasy with the idea that Hayes and Dixon would actually go through with their extra-judicial act-so he throws in a caveat. As they're talking to one another in the car, it's probably the unheard voice of the goodly Sheriff Willoughby which is still in the air. Hayes and Dixon express doubts about actually going through with the plan-the implication of course is that they will not engage in another act of violence-that they in fact have "learned their lesson," and now are ready to act as law-abiding citizens.
It might be reassuring to a liberal audience that the bad guys suddenly become "good"-that there is a measure of redemption for the two who have become unhinged by the deaths of people close to them. In reality, vigilantes remain vigilantes, and such reversals in outlook are highly unlikely. But even if one accepts the improbable Deus ex machina, McDonagh's willingness to excuse all the prior bad conduct, suggests a crack in the screenwriter's moral compass.
Ultimately, McDonagh wants his quirk-fest both ways. He revels in the bad acts of vigilantism, appealing to the aforementioned "baser instincts"; but offers up redemption for his bad actors, in the form of a martyred lawman, who like a saint from above, offers words of wisdom for the ages.
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