Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / During the pre-Mad Men golden age of roadside America, advertising billboards set a tone of warm and friendly commercialism. Perhaps the most notable and culturally durable ones were those of Burma-Shave, a then-novel brushless shaving cream. The ads were picture-free and strictly verbal: they consisted of short, whimsically sardonic poems “signed” by Burma-Shave, each line printed plainly on a separate billboard. Shaving brushes / You’ll soon see ’em / On the shelf / In some / Museum / Burma-Shave or Does your husband / Misbehave / Grunt and grumble / Rant and rave / Shoot the brute some / Burma-Shave The lone flourish was the ornate font used for the brand name. Separating the lines strung the driver along the proverbial Route 66, and their impact turned on the piquant wit of the message. After the company had consolidated the brand, it exploited its prestige to spread war propaganda and to campaign for road safety. Past / Schoolhouses / Take it slow / Let the little / Shavers grow / Burma-Shave
The Burma-Shave billboards are fondly remembered, and now amount to public folk art. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh’s nastily funny cannonade of a movie, Mildred Hayes (vintage Frances McDormand) employs the very anachronism of three billboards, unused for 30 years and wasting away until she rents them, and Burma-Shave-esque extra-commercial swagger to highlight the political backwardness of the eponymous town (note its name’s pun) and to browbeat a putatively apathetic police department into solving the rape and murder of her daughter. Here folk art becomes targeted agitprop. In order, the three billboards read: Raped while dying / And still no arrests / How come, Chief Willoughby? The chief (Woody Harrelson, in his homey sweet spot), it turns out, is not a beer-bellied, bigoted redneck but rather a squared-away, small-town salt-of-the-earth almost as frustrated as Mildred about his futility and stoically dying from pancreatic cancer.
The film does need a foil, and that would be Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, terrific), a crude racist with Mommy issues known for torturing black suspects. Despite Willoughby’s disdain for him, Dixon venerates the chief, hinting that Dixon is redeemable. Willoughby’s death prompts in Dixon – after an initial paroxysm of drunken rage that gets him fired – reflection and transformation. In a gonzo act of selfless courage, he propels the investigation forward, ultimately forming an alliance with Mildred characterized by casually reciprocal forgiveness. (The moment of its coalescence is as satisfying as any in film this year.) What makes their partnership credible is the film’s thematically meticulous composition – melding Coen-esque dark humor, a clear and not entirely uncharitable view of Middle America, and a discreetly progressive tilt – in the context of the desperate need for conciliation in the current dismal moment.
Like last year’s Hell or High Water, the film’s nonchalant violence, jarring twists, and throwback quaintness reflect not lack of focus but, to the contrary, sober awareness of the haunted, hazardous, and crooked miles ahead. McDonagh seems to know he is continuing the Hillbilly Elegy conversation. Billboards are still around. The attitudes that prevailed in their heyday are no longer latent, if they ever were. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a viciously smart and salutary movie for troubled times.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Martin McDonagh. With Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.
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