Billboards raise awkward questions

AP
Frances McDormand's face is one of the first things you see in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," and it's impossible not to be struck by its pure decency.
AP

Frances McDormand’s face is one of the first things you see in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and it’s impossible not to be struck by its pure decency.

Perhaps it’s a result of all the other roles we’ve seen this uniquely fearless actress play. But you look at her face and you think: This person has a moral compass. Her side is the right one. We will be safe there.

And that’s the way it seems for a while, until suddenly it isn’t quite so simple.

It’s a credit both to writer-director Martin McDonagh and to McDormand’s performance, her best since her Oscar-winning turn in “Fargo,” that we don’t see this coming nearly soon enough to steel ourselves.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a mother who’s suffered unimaginable loss: the rape, murder and incineration of her teen daughter. The film begins 7 months later, as Hayes is driving down a road near her home. She stops and stares at three dilapidated billboards.

She heads to the town advertising office, and hands over a wad of cash. Soon, those billboards will be painted bright red, and emblazoned with three messages: “Raped While Dying.” ‘’And Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

A grieving mother searching for answers from lazy police. What could be wrong with that? Our righteous anger intensifies as a self-satisfied priest comes to her home, sips tea in her kitchen, and explains that she’s out of line. Mildred lectures right back, telling him that he is complicit, as a member of the church, in church sex abuse. She tells him to get out of her kitchen. So much for black and white. “Three Billboards” is a veritable study in gray. Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) comes to visit, and he’s a decent and caring guy. The billboards are unfair, he tells her: It’s not easy to catch a killer.

There are no clear heroes here, and no clear villains, and needless to say, one should not expect to take away any easy lessons, either.


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