‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Is Black Comedy At Its Best
One thing is for certain: this film will make you laugh.
A blisteringly original black comedy starring Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand, who delivers the most universally acclaimed performance of the year.
If there’s one thing legends like John Oliver, Dave Chappelle and the Saturday Night Live crew have taught us, it’s that laughing actually helps – even in these dark Trump/Weinstein times.
There’s a reason why many of us laugh at inappropriate times (don’t pretend you haven’t done it) or turn to our trusted comedians and satirical films to make light of a bad situation that unfolds like a hurricane: it’s because comedy is a universal tension-easer, a balm to help us get through life’s many shitstorms.
It’s why we make jokes at funerals or impersonate world leaders who seem to like watching the world burn. Not only does black humour enable us to LOL in the face of what otherwise could be a bit too real, it actually might reveal a whole new perspective on some pretty touchy topics, too.
Humour And Sensitive Subjects Go Hand-In-Hand
Few understand the subtle nuance humour can bring to a sensitive topic better than Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of Golden Globe nomination hog Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The film takes a delicate subject – a grieving mother, an unsolved rape and murder case – and weaves in moments of sharp, cinder black comedy. It’s largely carried by the magnificent Frances McDormand in the role of protagonist Mildred Hayes, and Sam Rockwell as Dixon, a grossly offensive, bigoted and incompetent policeman.
On a surface level, Three Billboards is a heart-wrenching examination of a mother’s unending anguish in a small, mid-Western town (fictional, but likely closer to the truth than those who live in those towns would like to admit). But the comedy is overt: Frances McDormand is formidable in the role of Hayes, injecting the character with a rare breed of tenacity that doesn’t die quick.
Hayes unabashedly kicks teenagers in the crotch, runs rings around the local Catholic priest with thinly veiled accusations of paedophilia, and conjures comebacks that transcend the realm of sassiness into something else entirely.
Even Dixon – atrocious as he is – gets some laughs, although these are directed wholeheartedly “at” him rather than alongside him. At these and other strangely comical moments in the film, laughing doesn’t feel perverse, even though on paper it probably should.
Comedy As A Moral Beacon
The comedy in Three Billboards acts as a kind of moral beacon for the audience; while the audience is chuckling, they’re also alerted to larger issues that require their attention.
Mildred Hayes is worn ragged by perpetually coming up against the “good men” in her town and losing. The ways that power protects itself (in the form of cops propping up other cops who are, for all intents and purposes, useless for anything other than “person of colour torturing”), the ways in which Mildred Hayes is pushed to her physical and moral limits (we weren’t joking about her kicking kids square in the crotch) in a desperate attempt to be taken seriously are the sources of a funny sort of ire – just why, exactly, are we laughing?
Is it funny ‘cause it’s true? Would we be laughing if it were happening to us? If we walk away interrogating our own sense of humour, the film has largely served its purpose. In the the same way that Fargo (both the film and the first four seasons of the TV series) brings to light questions about human selfishness, the fraught pursuit of wealth and how everything can really go so terribly wrong, Three Billboards leaves its audience to ponder the reality of self destructive behaviour and how society often turns a blind eye to ‘difficult women’ like Mildred Hayes.
Black Comedy Is Sticking Around
Humour has underpinned a good proportion of human interaction for centuries and has permeated film and television in its many forms since screens first became a thing. The genre has also amassed a fair amount of sticking power, evidenced by how well Three Billboards has fared in this year’s Golden Globe Award nominations – it’s received six, including Best Picture, Best Director and (of course) Best Actress because McDormand is actual fire. It also dominated the Screen Actors Guild Award nominations last week, with four nods for ensemble acting and the performances of McDormand, Rockwell and Harrison.
Satirical storytelling is an inherently democratic way of getting a message across – better to make someone laugh than to shove a belief down their gullets, said no religious fanatic ever.
Even Freud, who we probably all think of as a pretty serious guy, said jokes are a way of confronting our fears; we’re more likely to tackle something we hate head on if it’s presented to us in the form of a pill we can swallow, like a funny film or a television show.
As the most honest form of comedy there is, black comedies present an opportunity for an audience to look inwards on their own accord, to realise how ridiculous some things really are.
Remember that time Malcolm Turnbull literally stole a campaign slogan from political satire Veep? That moment pretty much cements the importance of satire forever more; if we didn’t have satire, how would we ever know when our trusted politicians were plagiarising?
As long as idiot politicians and troubling social conundrums plague the 24- hour news cycle, black comedy will forever have a place in helping humankind get through it all and come out better on the other side. And, if there’s a social and/or moral lesson to be taken from Mildred Hayes’ plight in Three Billboards, we’re almost positive it’s related to kicking teenagers in the crotch.
(All images: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri/Twentieth Century Fox)
Don’t miss Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in cinemas on New Year’s Day.