Signs and Revelations

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Produced by Blueprint Pictures 
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh 
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Lady Bird
Produced by Scott Rudin Productions 
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig 
Distributed by A24 

Three Billboards is hilarious; yet it could hardly be sadder.  How can it be both at once?  That’s director Martin McDonagh’s signature move.  He’s a practitioner of a Swiftian satire that’s blacker than pitch and thus guaranteed to delight some and horrify others.

Here we have Mildred Hayes, played with granitic force by Frances McDormand giving a new sulfurous glow to the time-worn phrase that hell has no fury like that of a woman scorned.  Mildred’s fury has been hellishly stoked by a husband who has left her for Penelope, a dim-witted 19-year-old.  After witnessing a family scene that includes Mildred’s son holding a butcher knife to this errant father’s neck, the well-meaning Penelope remarks, “Anger begets greater anger.”  Mildred’s friend asks the logical question: Did she say begets?  Of course she didn’t.  She was quoting a bookmark.  McDonagh’s stamp again: silliness and horror unexpectedly jostling each other.

But there’s more to Mildred’s ire.  Seven months earlier her silly daughter, Angela, had gotten herself murdered by a madman who raped her and then set her on fire.  You wouldn’t think this atrocity could be made worse.  But McDonagh manages to do so.  In a flashback to the night of Angela’s grisly end, we watch the girl waging war with her mother.  She wants the keys to the car.  When Mildred says no, the young lady announces that she’ll walk to town instead.  “And you know what, I hope I get raped on the way.”

Mildred responds with something less than motherly concern: “I hope you get raped, too.”

So you can understand Mildred’s rage.  It’s fueled by her guilt as well as her anger.  And it’s further compounded by what she takes to be the law’s delay.  In Mildred’s estimation, the local police haven’t expended any great effort to bring the murderer to justice.  So we can’t be surprised when Mildred decides to shame police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).  On the highway that runs by her home, there are three neglected billboards, their tattered advertising bills all but erased by time and weather.  They’re perfect for launching a crusade.  Mildred rents the signs, on which she posts two statements and a question, following in succession, against the blood-red background of each sign: “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?”  Complaints don’t come much crisper.  Nor do they come more provocative.

They soon have the town in an uproar.  Willoughby’s strutting deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), rises to the bait first.  He assumes there must be a law against such a defamatory assault on police dignity.  Willoughby corrects him, pointing out that Mildred has exercised her right to free speech.  She’s only asking a question.  Later he tries to reason with Mildred.  He explains that he’s done all he can to find the rapist, but there’s no evidence to follow.  Mildred is unimpressed.  He then attempts to play on her sympathy, telling her he’s dying of pancreatic cancer.  She coldly replies she knows it.

“You know it,” Willoughby asks, “and you still put up those signs?”

“Well,” comes Mildred’s answer, “they wouldn’t be as effective after you croak, right?”  Willoughby can only look at her in disbelief.  She demands that he take the DNA of every male in the county—in the country, if necessary.  Mildred is as an unrelenting as a Greek fury; she’s mercilessly conducting her tragic mission.

What keeps percolating through the narrative are Penelope’s words: Anger begets greater anger.  It might be the counsel of another Penelope.  In the Odyssey Homer’s patient Penelope resigns herself to abide with the pain and loss inflicted on the innocent of this world until a hero puts things right.  But Odysseus seems missing in this narrative.

By the end of the story, Penelope’s observation will receive its due.  Mildred’s billboards will have pointed the way to near-fatal beatings, arson, explosions, mayhem with a dentist’s drill, a defamatory verbal assault on a well-meaning parish priest, and more.  But then comes some relief.  A grievously wounded man will forgive another grievously wounded man.  And so the narrative seems to come to a peaceful resolution.  But no.  There’s another turn to take, and it’s as darkly remorseless as all that preceded it.  There’s no end to begetting anger in this world.  It’s the darkness of the human comedy in which we’re all fatally embroiled.

It won’t do, though, to harness this narrative with a moral theme.  It’s not that kind of enterprise.  It’s rather a gleeful meditation on how vile life can become.

There is, however, a moment of respite near the film’s end.  In a quiet scene, Mildred brings flowers to the plot of ground on which her daughter burned to death.  It’s just under one of the billboards, the one asking the taunting question “Still no arrests?”  As she does so, she looks up and sees a fawn walking toward her.  “Hey baby,” she greets the animal.  “Yep, still no arrests.  How come, I wonder?  Cos there ain’t no God and the world’s empty and it don’t matter what we do to each other?  Ooh, I hope not.”  Mildred seems astonishingly oblivious to the greater anger she herself has unleashed.

I’m not at all sure McDonagh has a theme in mind.  His art here and in films such as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths seems content to be comically nihilistic.  But then there’s the advertising executive who rents Mildred the billboards.  When we first see him, he’s reading a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s stories gathered under the title of her most famous and enigmatic: “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  Could this be a clue?

Lady Bird, directed by the formerly mumblecore actress Greta Gerwig, is not at all in McDonagh’s league, but it does share an interest in the mordant, often with telling effect.  The film tells the story of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a 17-year-old high-school senior who has decided that neither her parents nor her social circumstances are up to her standards.  According to Gerwig, the girl resembles what she was at the same age, desperate to become independent well before she has the means and understanding to do so.  In other words, she’s as impossible as many another young woman suffering through the confusions of late adolescence.

She attends Immaculate Heart High School, a Catholic institution modeled on the one to which Gerwig’s Unitarian Universalist parents sent her; evidently they didn’t want to risk putting her into a Sacramento public school.  This makes Christine something of an outsider.  When attending compulsory Mass, she cannot receive the Eucharist.  She’s decided further to enforce her outsiderness by changing her name.  When a teacher asks if her choice, Lady Bird, is her given name, she blithely replies that it is.  “It was given by myself to myself.”  This is, of course, the key to her character’s principal aspiration.  Like most 17-year-olds, she’s desperate to make herself into her own image, one uncontaminated by the failure and compromise she sees in the adult world.  In short, she wants to fly from the nets of family and place.  Her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), puts up with her pretensions resignedly, while some of the nuns at her school, especially the vice principal, Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), are bemused by her childish arrogance.  It helps that she’s reasonably bright and mischievously inventive.  When she and her friend are found out to have put a sign on the bumper of Sister Sarah Joan’s car reading “Just married to Jesus,” Christine is called in to the office—but not to be reprimanded.  The sister wants Christine to know that she thought her prank funny.  She’d driven all the way home puzzled that people were honking at her.  Then she adds, “I wasn’t just married to Jesus.  It’s been 40 years.”

Realizing that she’s talking to a sympathetic soul, Christine says, “Well, he’s a lucky guy.”  It’s a good bet Sarah Joan also knows Christine’s nickname for the school: Immaculate Fart.

What I liked most about this film is that it’s not the standard reverential treatment of adolescent angst that’s been Hollywood’s profitable tradition since 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause.  With her pink hair and charmless lack of respect, Gerwig’s Christine is emphatically not Natalie Wood.  She’s a self-dramatizing pain in the ass.  After Marion has spent 21 hours driving her to prospective colleges and universities in California, they turn for home listening to a taped reading of—what else?—The Grapes of Wrath.  Christine is sullen, showing no gratitude for what her mother has just done for her.  When Marion informs her the family’s financial straits won’t allow for the expense of schools outside the state, Christine looks at her contemptuously, opens the door, and throws herself from the moving car, breaking her arm.  That’s wrath for you.

I also appreciated Gerwig’s decision not to festoon the story with sexual forays that have become de rigueur in films about kids for the last 40 years.  Christine does have a crush on one boy, but when she finds him kissing another boy with far more ardor than he has displayed with her, it breaks her heart.  Well, for a few days anyway.  She chooses another fellow and decides to arrange for him to deflower her, only to discover he’s not who she wants, either.  This scene is handled discreetly with clothes on, which probably means the film will not show up on HBO, where the entry price for film exhibition is bevies of bare-breasted actresses.  Calling Harvey Weinstein!

Also, I was impressed to see a film in which Catholic clergy aren’t mocked but rather respected as understanding adults who are trying to guide their students wisely.

The acting is uniformly good.  Ronan looks herself: a gangly, awkward, freckled girl wearing a sour face, except when she allows herself to step from her histrionic notion of what’s cool and just be a spontaneous girl once more.  That’s genuine adolescence.  Tracy Letts, as her beleaguered father, conveys perfectly a good man worried about whether he has the means to meet his child’s needs.  But it is Metcalf as Marion who thoroughly grounds the film, with her portrayal of a mother trying to strike a balance between loving and indulging her daughter and often fearing that’s she’s failing.

All in all, this is an honest movie about the anguish of being an adolescent or, in Evelyn Waugh’s words, a defective adult.  And it’s also as much about the trials this anguish causes loving parents.     

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