Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the kind of movie that gets an Oscar Best Picture nomination because the people in charge think it’s gritty, meaningful filmmaking full of important social commentary. In actuality, it’s a movie that uses relevant social topics – namely police brutality and inaction – in a cynical ploy for cheap exploitation and shock value. This is a nihilistic movie that delights in trying to offend. There is a painful tone-deafness in how Three Billboards attempts to mix comedy and pathos. The plot machinations, especially late in the film, become so creaky that several key points are unbelievable, even laughable.
Despite all this, there are a few redeeming qualities to Three Billboards. It’s a beautifully shot film. It contains two outstanding performances, despite some of the dialog being utterly deplorable. One actor, the great Frances McDormand, uses the only earnest element in the film – a meditation on intense grief – to craft a heartbreaking portrayal of a mother suffering intense psychological torment.
The story, set in the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri, concerns Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother whose teenage daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered seven months ago. Mildred is a cauldron of rage because the local police force has made zero progress in finding Angela’s killer. Driving home one day, she notices three derelict billboards and gets the idea to goad the cops, and, consequently, the rest of the townsfolk, into action. She visits the local advertising company, run by a young hayseed named Red Welby. Big black letters on a fiery red background scream Mildred’s anger over the three billboards. RAPED WHILE DYING. AND STILL NO ARRESTS? HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
Chief Willoughby is Bill Willoughby, and he naturally takes exception to the billboards. The other officers on the force do, too, but none more than hothead officer Jason Dixon. The racist, homophobic Dixon has a reputation around town for torturing a black suspect while in his custody, a fact about which Mildred delights in taunting him. The escalating war of revenge and retaliation over the billboards between Mildred and Dixon make up the crux of the action of the movie.
It’s been a steady drone for decades, but especially in the last couple of years there’s been a lot of talk about “political correctness run amok.” Our current president used this sentiment as a key plank in the platform that got him elected. British playwright, screenwriter, and director Martin McDonagh tapped into this disdain for political correctness in Three Billboards. His movie seems designed to play for a red state, Trump voting audience.
How else to explain the following exchange that takes place after Mildred has been taken into custody for assaulting a local dentist, who tried to intimidate her into taking the billboards down? The scene starts in an interrogation room. Dixon is yelling at Mildred about how the billboards aren’t fair to Willoughby. She counters by telling him that she doesn’t think N-word torturing (only she doesn’t say “N-word”) is fair either, but he seems fine in doing that. Dixon sarcastically counters by telling her, “you can’t say [N-word] torturing no more. You gotta say peoples of color torturing.”
Willoughby enters the room and tells the agitated Dixon to leave. Chuckling, Willoughby confides to Mildred that if you fired every cop who had a little bit of a racist inclination, you’d only have three cops left, and all of them would hate F-words (insert homophobic epithet). The entire scene is played for laughs, only we aren’t meant to be laughing at these statements, we’re meant to laugh with them. The moment of levity takes a sharp dramatic turn near the end, something McDonagh does throughout Three Billboards to disastrous effect (I’ll be back to that later). I’m sure much of the critical praise that’s been heaped on the movie revolves around the fact that McDonagh’s writing is “edgy” and “taboo,” but from here, it just sounds petty and mean-spirited dressed up as “boundary pushing.” It’s really just an old white dude taking glee in using abusive language against oppressed classes.
What’s worse is McDonagh tries to have it both ways. I’m sure from his vantage point, he thinks he’s calling attention to important social issues. He has Mildred tell a news reporter that the reason she put the billboards up was because it seemed like police in Ebbing were more interested in torturing black folks than catching her daughter’s killer. This seemingly progressive argument rings as particularly hollow when you note that the cast is 98% white. The only two prominent black people we see in the movie are bit players who only serve to move the plot along. One of them is Mildred’s co-worker, and Dixon arrests her to try to pressure Mildred to take the billboards down. On reflection, the only conclusion I can draw is that McDonagh is more interested in being a provocateur than making a coherent social statement.
Tone management is something else that McDonagh utterly fails at in Three Billboards. The director is known for juxtaposing violence and comedy in his films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Here, he tries to do the same with those two elements, as well as comedy and poignant drama. The worst example of this is during a scene between Mildred and Charlie, her abusive ex-husband. Charlie stops by with his 19-year-old girlfriend, Penelope, to admonish Mildred for putting up the billboards. They begin to argue, and the fight culminates in Charlie upending the dining table and pushing Mildred against a wall with his hand around her throat. Penelope then enters the room and asks where the bathroom is. McDonagh chooses this moment of harrowing domestic abuse to let us know that Charlie’s new girlfriend is kind of dumb, and that almost everything she says is a punchline.
Meanwhile, some of the basic plot mechanics in Three Billboards are as laughable as McDonagh desperately wishes his racial-slur laden dialog was. We are asked to believe that a character would not see a raging fire, after dark, on the other side of giant plate-glass windows because his back is turned, he’s wearing earbuds, and he’s reading a letter. We are also expected to accept – for plot expediency more than anything else – that if a police officer threw a man from a second story window, then proceeded to beat that man in broad daylight in the middle of the street, right in front of the police station, no less, that the officer would not be arrested immediately, he would just be fired. I suppose, though, we shouldn’t question how realistic this might or might not be, because McDonagh scores the whole thing to a really hip, ironic rock song.
I was devastated when my number one movie of 2017, The Florida Project, was snubbed of an Oscar Best Picture nomination. That movie exemplifies the best qualities for which we can strive – empathy and understanding of our fellow humans. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri plays at being socially important, but really, it’s just an excuse for Martin McDonagh to thumb his nose at political correctness. It’s unfortunate that the Academy fell for it in an attempt to be “edgy”, and robbed a much more deserving film of the recognition it deserved.
Why it got 1 star:
- This rating has almost nothing to do with how well-made the movie is. It's beautifully shot, and the acting is first-rate. There are some real problems with the nuts and bolts of the plot, but mostly this is about theme and message. Three Billboards is a tonal train wreck. It delights in using provocative, destructive language seemingly for nothing more than sensationalism.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Frances McDormand is the favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mildred. I have been a fan of McDormand for decades, going back to her go-for-broke supporting turn in Raising Arizona. If she wins, I will be so happy for her, I will just wish it had been for a better movie.
- Speaking of McDormand, the physicality she brings to the role is a subtle but very effective facet of her performance. There is one flashback sequence that takes place before her daughter is killed, and she looks softer than she does in the rest of the movie. Her hair is longer. For the bulk of the movie, her hair is short, always pulled back, and even shaved underneath. She looks bulkier, like she has channeled her anger and anguish into working out, as a way to feel stronger. This physicality is particularly striking in one shot when she is standing in her hallway, after her son slams his bedroom door on her.
- Peter Dinklage has a supporting role as a local who has a crush on Mildred. The plot conspires to get them together in a restaurant together having dinner, when Mildred's ex-husband walks in and spots them. He comes over to goad Mildred, asking if the "midget" juggles. Again, these lines are designed for us to laugh with them, not at the buffoonish cretin who says them. The R-word (the slur against intellectually disabled people) is also used liberally for punchlines.
- Sam Rockwell is very good as officer Jason Dixon, but the screenplay asks us to see the racist, homophobic character as essentially a "good man at heart" on the say so of another character. His arc comes much too fast, and is unbelievable.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- For the love of Odin, why would someone choose the opening seconds of the movie they came to see to turn to the person they are with and ask, "Did you put your phone on silent? I don't think I did..."? DO IT THE SECOND YOU SIT DOWN!
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Netflix made waves during the Super Bowl last weekend when they premiered a surprise trailer for the next installment in the Cloverfield series. The advertisement announced the movie would be available for streaming right after the game. I was a huge fan of the first two movies in the series, and next week I'll tackle The Cloverfield Paradox. See what I did there? Super Bowl? Tackle? You're welcome.