My wife is a SAG-AFTRA member, and SAG has one of the big awards shows of the season, so the movie screeners from various nominees have been rolling into my house. That gave me a chance to see “Three Billbords Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which I wanted to see because it was set in a fictional Missouri town and I’ll watch anything with Frances McDormand in it.
I walked away a little infuriated, but also a little fascinated: These are characters with conflicting values, with angels and devils on their shoulders, like a lot of people I know. You never know which shoulder is going to lead the charge on a given day.
Fictional Missouri is apparently mountainous and really green at Easter season (neither is true, although you might find a tiny sliver of southwest Missouri that has big enough hills to be mildly confused with the North Carolina locale where this was shot). Real Missouri, with its gray and even snowy Marchs and early Aprils, would have been a better locale for this bleak tale. And again, the southern accents that Missourians don’t have often showed up here, as they commonly do in movie and TV portrayals of Missourians. I have accepted that Hollywood will use southern accents to characterize rednecks from North Dakota to Florida, so I let that pass.
McDormand rang mildly true to me, though. I’ve certainly met any number of Missouri women who were capable of getting mad enough to consider setting fire to a police station, but not so many who would actually carry it out. Their Inner Midwesterness puts that kind of rage in a hidden box, designed never to be opened…but if it does get cracked apart, watch out.
Missouri’s become a meaner place over the years than the one I remember as a young man, and the police always seem to show up in the middle of the worst incidents. Still, I cannot recall ever dealing with or meeting a police officer anywhere near the brutally racist range of Sam Rockwell’s character in this film. Now, Zeljko Ivanek‘s officer (Ivanek sure shows up in a lot of good roles) rings much more true. His character strikes me as the real one to avoid, because you know that Rockwell’s character will flame out (which is quite literally what happens here), while Ivanek’s cop will be there for generations, often leading with his devil’s shoulder.
Misery after misery unfolds in this movie, but you can’t look away. You might find yourself rooting at the end for McDormand’s and Rockwell’s characters to be successful in their little quest, which is designed more to cleanse their souls than to rain down any sense of justice. And that might make you wonder what exactly is wrong with you. This movie is nothing if not morally ambiguous, which is how a lot of people live their lives. But I can’t recommend it as a way to learn about, or understand, Missourians.