'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' - Representing Dichotomy
Martin McDonagh's pitch-black drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a startlingly human story packed to the brim with fleshed-out characters that become entangled within an overlapping story of revenge and redemption. So many different character traits and arcs are encompassed within its runtime that the fictional town of Ebbing flows much like a real South-American town. It's the film's use of a singular long-take to separate tone and character intentions that fascinates me however. It's a simple technique, arguably one of the simplest, but when it's utilised as well as this it can become one of the most powerful tools in a storyteller's arsenal.
*Spoilers ahead for the film itself*
Three Billboards focuses on Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the mother of a teenage daughter who was raped and murdered several months ago. Her dissatisfaction with the world's handling of the situation leads to her attacking the local police force through three disused billboards on the outskirts of town, one of which personally attacks Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) - a man the whole town loves and is going through cancer treatment. This causes a domino effect throughout the whole town as Mildred refuses to back down with her ruthless approach to proceedings, as officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell - an openly oafish and homophobic/racist cop with a deep admiration for Willoughby) tries to take matters into his own hands.
Pretty much every character, from primary to tertiary, are filled with their own demons here. Some, like Dixon and even Mildred, wear them openly whilst others are tucked away as behavioural difficulties and lack of self-confidence. The film therefore thrives off the dichotomy of these characters butting-heads with one another. They're at each other's throats constantly and this is showcased through the film's visuals as well as its remarkable script. Whether it's Mildred's son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) playfully (then not so playfully) calling his mother a cunt or attempts to punish Mildred from various members of the town, conflict is the fire that burns in these characters.
Take the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri for example. Separated by a singular high-street which we're given the contextual layout for in a long-shot during Mildred's drive to work, we see that the police station sits opposite the office of Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) - the owner and proprietor of the billboards Mildred rents out. They're opposites through and through in every sense, whether it be the side of the road they're on or what they represent for Mildred. Three Billboards takes great glee in attempting to whittle everything down to black or white, good or bad. It's this dichotomy that forms the first half of the film. When competing characters interact they do so from opposite sides of the screen, or opposite sides of an interrogation room, or from separate heights. Somebody always has the upper hand in every given situation.
Martin McDonagh's works are known for their antagonistic and quick-witted characters, it's what draws such compelling character actors to fill them. But his film work in particular uses small visual narrative tricks to undercut this tenacity and prevent it from becoming overbearing. In Bruges dwells on the guilt and anxiety of Colin Farrel's Ray, and his suicidal tendencies standout as eternal acts of violence in a film that's filled to the brim with it. Seven Psychopaths toys with the notion of escapism through the use of Billy Bickle's imagination. Three Billboards, the most human story of the three, instead translates its central dichotomy into its format by splitting the film in two and separating them with a single long-take.
The take in question happens at the exact halfway point too. Harrelson's Chief Willoughby has killed himself to avoid the oncoming emotional pain of terminal illness, but Mildred is blamed thanks to her actions with the billboards. This is the emotional apex of the film - the 'Climax of the Action' if we're using Gustav Freytag's Pyramid - 'the development of conflict reaches its high point, the Hero stands at the crossroads, leading to victory or defeat, crashing or soaring'. But of course it's not so simple, so to explore it we're gonna have to look to the shot itself...
After finding out about his hero Willoughby's death, Officer Dixon sees Red Welby finalling making moves on his secretary who he has a crush on across the street in his office. His distraught mindset turns to rage, and he sees lashing out at Red the closest thing he can get to attacking Mildred (who he blames for Willoughby's suicide). So in one marvellous steadicam sweep we follow Dixon as he slurs his feet across the road, breaks into Red's office and beats the man to a pulp before throwing him out the window. He then proceeds to batter secretary Pamela (Kerry Condon) before catching up with a cripples Red crawling across the road caked in blood on his way back to the station. This all plays to His Master's Voice by Monsters of Folk, with a serene sense of uneasy calm in their vocals and lyrics that counter the actions on-screen.
In case you haven't seen it, here's the scene in question (I would recommend seeing the whole film if you haven't - it's a remarkable piece of work).
Of course, when referring back to Freytag's Pyramid, it's not the protagonist Mildred that takes on the role of hero here but Dixon himself. When the film was released a great amount of controversy surrounded the redemption of such a detestable character, but it's here where Three Billboards is so strong. Dixon crashes instead of soaring by committing such an atrocious act in front of his new boss, who watches on in front of the station. This displacement of anger triggers a change not just for Dixon but the film. He still heads out towards victory, but it gets a lot worse before it gets better.
After this scene Dixon is fired, and loses everything. When returning back to the station to grab his things he's handed a letter from Willoughby, that tells him he has the potential to be a great detective and actually help people. Meanwhile, a revenge-seeking Mildred hurls molotov cocktails at the station thinking nobody is inside. Dixon burns to a crisp trying to save the evidence from the Angela Hayes (Mildred's daughter) case, and Mildred's anger flips to compassion. And so shines a selfless deed...
From this emotional fallout, Mildred and her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) come to an understanding, to the point where she doesn't even lash out for his burning down of the titular billboards. Dixon on the other hand overhears a potential suspect of Angela's murder/rape in a bar, and decides to get DNA evidence from a fight as well as a license plate number. This is at great cost for the both of them. Mildred's puts her isolation and sadness aside to wish her ex happiness whilst Dixon's cost comes from even more of a beating after some serious burns from Mildred's fire. This healing process culminates in a visit to Mildred from Dixon, telling her to keep hoping for justice. They sit on the same swings Mildred coldly dismisses Willoughby's confession of cancer on earlier, but they sit side-by-side looking out on the billboards themselves.
The film from here on out is about the two of them against the world. The dichotomy has switched from being between the characters within the film to them fighting against the injustice of the past, and when it's revealed the suspect isn't the one they're looking for, Dixon and Mildred contemplate trying to do something good regardless. It's not altruistic of course, this is Martin McDonagh, the two plan on driving to the guy's house and murdering him, but there's a serenity and tranquility to these new roles they've taken up.
Dichotomy isn't always good vs. evil. It can be as large or small scale as the story dictates, and many filmmakers/writers etc. have a tough time implementing such an idea without succumbing to a traditional battle at the apex. Martin McDonagh's dichotomy within Three Billboards comes naturally from character, and through a single (albeit, harrowing) action the fallout encompasses this antagonism to dwindle. It's expertly done and just one of the reasons the film deserves all the praise it gets.
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Thank you for reading.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and 4k.
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