Reel Dad: Frances McDormand tries to make sense of Three Billboards

This week, Jonathan Schumann — who co-wrote this column with his “Reel Dad,” Mark Schumann, from 1999 to 2006 — returns to Arts & Leisure to take a look at a new film getting a lot of buzz.

Early on in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred (Frances McDormand) storms into a room and happens upon someone reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. The storming in and out is something we’ll see, almost exhaustively, throughout the film. The nod to O’Connor, and this short story in particular, is anything but accidental. The rogues’ gallery of small-town characters that populates the film resembles a cast O’Connor might have assembled, and the nod to this short story in particular sets up the film’s central question –— what makes an upstanding man, and where have they all gone?

An intriguing, and ever relevant question, indeed. Unfortunately, writer/director Martin McDonagh can’t seem to juggle the erratic mix of broad comedy and deep pathos the story sets up. I couldn’t help but wonder what the Coen Brothers — who have masterfully balanced these elements in films like Fargo — would have done with this material. I also felt they were similarly needed this year in lifting the hapless lunacy in I, Tonya from caricature to character. Oh, well.

The film centers on the aforementioned Mildred, who rents the titular billboards outside her small Missouri town. On them, she plants a taunting message to local law enforcement. Her daughter’s murder has long gone unsolved, and she’s fed up. This sets up a conflict with the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) and other police officers that quickly escalates. Mildred’s rage is justifiable, and on a broader level, this conflict represents the struggle to see institutions of power held accountable for crimes against minority populations. Race, too, enters the fray, however vaguely, with whispers of police profiling and aggression, and the occasional off-color conjecture. That thread goes unexplored, to the film’s detriment.

The film’s Missouri setting is intentional — it’s a deep red state that went for Trump by double  digits. McDonagh’s indictment of toxic masculinity and ignorance is therefore relevant and fitting for these times. Too bad, then, that he handles things so clumsily.

McDormand, a pro at etching characters like this, is surprisingly one-note. Yes, she vacillates from vengeful to sorrowful to contemplative and back again, but these varied emotions all feel like vaguely distinguishable shades of rage. Harrelson, always so watchable, does better as the sheriff who is the target of Mildred’s anger, as does Sam Rockwell as a reckless deputy who displays the film’s only true character arc. Lucas Hedges, from Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird, also makes a welcome appearance as McDormand’s son.

Streaming pick: Fargo

I thought of this film a few times throughout Three Billboards, and not just because it offers a far more nuanced, layered turn from McDormand. This film also focuses on crime in a small community, and does so far more deftly. Beyond the comedic high jinks — and yes, it’s very funny — is the central question that asks, How far will people go for a little bit of money?” At its heart, it’s a damning exploration of the convoluted lengths people will go to to satisfy their greed.

(Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references. 2.5 Popcorn Buckets. The film runs 1 hour, 55 minutes.)

The Grapes of Wrath details the American condition

By Mark Schumann

The Reel Dad

When people despair, they often take their futures into their own hands.

As we see in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, people will travel many emotional miles to deal with unresolved issues.

And we have learned, in the past several years, how hopeless life can become when economic realities overwhelm people trying to hold their financial and personal lives together. We see, everywhere we turn, people who need support to eat, work and simply live.

But this is not the first time our nation has faced such challenges. Back in the 1930s, when so much went so wrong for so many, the Great Depression changed the face of our country, and the lives of millions. Life was fundamentally different at this time when families had to take care of themselves — even more than today — with few social systems to provide assistance to those in need. And while nothing can cure the hurt that leads to hopelessness, our current situation — as bad as it is — cannot rival the despair people felt more than 80 years ago as financial ruin hit every part of the U.S.

The great writer John Steinbeck, whose empathy for everyday people and their challenges rings through every word he writes, had great concern for the people he felt the nation forgot. When he created this story of one family who, believing they can find better times, pack up and leave Oklahoma for a new life in California, he created an ode for the nation, as so many people found themselves making similar choices. Through the experiences of the Joad family, The Grapes of Wrath takes us into the lives, disappointments and hopes one family, simply trying to cope with all the pressures of a difficult time.

On film, director John Ford delivers a master class in how to adapt literature to the screen. He magically preserves what is essential from Steinbeck without letting the film be dictated by Steinbeck. He tells the story in a visual way, with restraint from letting the characters speak too much, and keeps the action moving at a pace appropriate for film, not for the page. And he brings out such true performances, especially from Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, that the pain of the moment still sings even though the film was made more than 70 years ago.

The Grapes of Wrath makes me realize, again, how as a nation we so quickly let people down who need so much. We don’t have to look very far to see people who have been hurt by what has happened to the finances in our world the past few years. This has been a very difficult time. What gives the film so much for us to talk about is the way it teaches us to look beyond what we may experience, as we realize that, no matter how challenged we may be, someone else will always face something more difficult. It also inspires us to look for the best in every moment, or else there may be no reason to look forward at all.

Because we can always get caught up in what is wrong in our world but we never know what bright skies may be just ahead, as long as we continue to look, and hope. And, as Tom says at the film’s end, we simply can never let ourselves give up, or stop fighting the fight.

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