The more I mull over THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, the more its place at the head of the Oscar race baffles me. Martin McDonagh’s first film since SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS boasts admirable performances and fiery dialogue but fundamentally frustrates you as well. This year’s Oscars boast two films that will almost certainly win for their lead performances but which shouldn’t even be in the conversation for the top prize.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) takes her town’s police department to task for failing to bring her daughter’s killer to justice. Hiring three billboards on the outskirts to publicise their ineptitude (“Raped while dying / And still no arrests / How come, Chief Willoughby?”), she draws the ire of Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), blunt instrument Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and many of the residents of Ebbing, Missouri as well.
McDormand is outstanding, a sweary toughnut matriarch ready for war (just look at how she tears apart the local reverand with a foul, personal monologue). Unfortunately, her character Mildred is utterly abrasive and unlikeable throughout. I know that’s the point, that the terrible defilement and loss of her only daughter has reduced her to a bitter, combative shell of a human being, but it’s a long two hours to spend in her company. Between her and Rockwell’s bigoted live wire as the two showiest roles, you find yourself praying for more time with Woody Harrelson who at least plays a character with light and shade. I wish we were given more time with Mildred’s family unit as a whole – we only get one real flashback that establishes two things: they argued, and they used the C-word very liberally.
I became irritated by the rolling series of coincidences that is the main plot, the on-the-nose dramatic irony in the flashback sequence and whenever McDonagh thinks he’s playing the part of a clever satirist. He’s much better at peppering his barbed dialogue with creative or unexpected swearing, like Mildred’s seemingly innocent billboard inquiry, “I assume it’s ya can’t say nothing defamatory, and ya can’t say, ‘f***’ ‘p***’ or ‘c***’. That right?” The rest is all just a bit contrived, whatever the intention was. I know McDonagh isn’t exactly a subtle creative force, but Three Billboards still features one of the most heavy-handed pieces of symbolism I’ve ever seen, and it’s made all the worse by a character further explaining it to the audience.
While it’s always nice to see Sam Rockwell getting recognition for something, I completely agree that the film’s excusing Dixon’s deplorable actions because he’s dumb and lives with a monster of a mother is pretty repulsive. Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby pulls the old “good deep down” justification for his psychotic subordinate and we’ve no idea what he’s spotted to give Dixon the benefit of the doubt. All points to slightly shoddy writing for Rockwell’s character: if he’s going to be forgiven, redeemed towards the end, then he has to be given more than one dimension.
Equally troubling is that by the end of proceedings, McDonagh seems to be advocating the virtues of vigilantism. I understand the reputation of the Police in the USA has rarely been lower, attitudes, working practices and disciplinary procedures are in dire need of change, but there’s a fair few steps separating the idea of Police reform and the call to arms for citizens sorting it out for themselves, especially when guns as a way to dispense justice comes into the conversation.
My biggest issue with Three Billboards, even beyond the disturbing political subtext and surface-level characterisation, was that I did not feel engaged in this story or characters. I felt passive, unemotional, despite the hard-hitting human story being told. We’re relentlessly pummeled by horribleness for little payoff, and because the story is told in a conventional a-b-c manner instead of playing with time and perspective to gradually reveal the moments that made Mildred who she is, we’re not given enough context or emotional resonance to really understand these characters. Bursts of classical music, the laziest shorthand for “we’re an important film, we’re intellectual, we promise!” really doesn’t help this misjudged, strangely dead-eyed Oscar-contender. SSP
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