The Absurdity of Redemption

Film review: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Director: Martin McDonagh)

By Sascha Krieger

Three decaying billboards on a road no-one travels on anymore. In Martin McDonagh’s film, the celebrated Irish playwright’s third, they’re all it takes to trigger a series of events evolving into an Old-Testamentarian fireball of guilt, violence, fate, revenge and redemption. With one exception: there is no hand of God in all of this. Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand as a modern-day mixture of Job and Moses with a dose of Cain thrown in and just a hint of Jesus, a stubborn, dry-witted, relentless woman, holding up staunchly her facade above a bottomless sea of sorrow, has lost her daughter to an unspeakable crime. Months later the investigation has stalled, so she rents those billboards and uses them to ask the local police chief (gentle and imposing all in one, loving husband, reasonable authority, quirky clown: Woody Harrelson) what’s going on. A spark that lights a fire. Factions form, the police overreaches, dentist drills turn into weapons, people get injured or even die, Molotov cocktails fly. It doesn’t take more than a few large letters to strip away the illusion of civilisation, of a peaceful town where people face each other with decency.

Image: © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is seen by some as a comment about a state of an America that’s divided as never before. Yes, simmering debates about racism, misogyny, equality are hinted at, provide and undercurrent of the miniature world depicted – there is hardly ever a hint there’s actually a larger world beyond it – but the stakes are higher than that. McDonagh’s Ebbing, Missouri is a world of its own, a miniature universe which all its existential issues rolled into one. A world  that is funny and absurd and at exactly the same time cruel and violent, full of love and friendship and light-hearted laughter as well as no decency, no shame, no inhibition. Absurdist humour becomes stark and bleak darkness from one second to the other and vice versa. At the centre of this universe are Mildred – and police officer Dixon. Sam Rockwell plays hum like an open would: constantly angry, wounded, prone to violence, a drunkard both ridiculous and dangerous. Here lies the wonder of this film and its characters: they’re completely believable people, aching, all having significant holes to fill, struggling to find their way around. Lost souls in a confusing world as miniature as it is. Where good people seem to support evil and bad ones do good. Or rather where the same thing is usually good and bad at the very same time. and so these „real people“ are also caricatures, ridiculous agents of absurdity, clowns of fate but also silly harbingers of hope.

The tragic is always hilarious, the funny horrifying. Miniatures of the absurd turn into deeply touching moments of existential crisis, laughter into tears and back into laughter. The audience is through on a rollercoaster on which their not only hurried from one feeling to its opposite but where the same scene can register on opposite ends of the spectrum of human experience. The narration is rather matter of fact, McDonagh and his cinematographer Ben Davis tend to take a step back, change perspectives, move close and then take a look from outside. There is constantly a sense of distance there, an ambivalence that keeps the world hanging in an awkward balance. Hope is as fragile as is hate, unusual and unexpected alliances form, redemption is a joke but also a last chance. Amid all of the hilarity and horror, a wider picture emerges where humans are not only their worst enemies but also their only hope. That isn’t entirely new but the radical consequence with which McDonagh and his superb cast pursue their unique mixture of family meets crime drama and parable is earth-shattering. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it shatters your world and leaves you with a smile. Confusing, exhilarating, deeply human.

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