Caleb Landry Jones
1 Hr., 55 Mins.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri March 13, 2018
s Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) the Crash (2005) of the 2010s, the La La Land (2016) of 2017? Judging from its ever-shifting critical consensus, such queries have gained traction. Although the film’s name rose to prominence after it was ecstatically received at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, the film has, in the months since, become more famous for being the backlash-prone black sheep of the awards circuit. It is a movie beloved by prize-touting associations like the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Academy but uneasily received by critics and audiences alike.
For as many people who took to its uncompromising fury and its virulent brand of black comedy, there were perhaps even more who were put off by its tone and its delivery. The film, after all, is thematically heavy but is presented as a poisonous farce. Most detractors have been particularly critical of one of its characters, a foul-mouthed, racist loser of a cop (Sam Rockwell) who is given a redemption arc in spite of wrongdoings that evidently do not keep him up at night.
So the comparisons to Crash, Paul Haggis’ Best Picture winner that portrayed race relations in America with laughable tone deafness, have abounded. As have mentionings of La La Land, which came to be equally esteemed and detested. Such has made me avoid this movie, given my hatred of Crash and my trust in the critics who have warned of its sizable foibles.
In the aftermath of my Three Billboards viewing all these months later, overwhelming disdain hasn’t come about as expected – but affection isn’t quite roaming about the premises, either. What I see in this movie is a decent-but-not-remarkable satire – a compendium of how its British-Irish writer-director views race relations, gender disparity, and small-town dysfunction in America, fashioned into an indignant semi-lark that consistently feels off. It isn’t bad per se; just simplistic, often half-baked, and featuring a number of questionable character motivations and arcs.
For a feature so steadily droll, its subject matter is definitively severe. It is about a small-town woman named Mildred (Frances McDormand, excellent) grieving the recent brutal rape and murder of her teenage daughter. Though much of the town is still reeling from the tragedy, almost nothing has been done by way of investigation. Because the case has proven leadless, police, as the film opens, have more or less billed the death unsolved and moved on.
Mildred, understandably, will not let this stand. Through gritted teeth, she purchases a triad of unused billboards that pepper the eponymous Ebbing’s primary country road. “Raped while dying,” she has one board say. “And still no arrests?” implores the next. “How come, Chief Willoughby?” asks the last.
The signs send the once-sympathetic town into a frenzy: to most, Mildred’s humiliation of Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is terminally ill, and his blue-jacketed cohorts is an undeserved kick in the crotch. But Mildred, who’s developed a chronic scowl and a habit of spitting in the face of niceties, doesn’t much care. What she wants is justice, and if it takes an abrasive visual spectacle to get her there, so be it.
The rest of the film concerns her additional efforts to get her to a place of satisfaction, as well as the inner lives of Willoughby and Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), who, despite reputedly consistently abusing black suspects in custody, eventually is quasi-redeemed because he takes it upon himself to look for the person responsible for Mildred’s daughter’s death.
Three Billboards gets a lot of things right. Mildred’s rage is forceful and rooted in almost ineradicable conviction – she’s pissed, and we wallow in that. We sympathize with Willoughby, who’s so used to being in control but is now in the process of losing whatever command he had over his fate. And for the most part, McDonagh draws small-town living perceptively, from the way people tend to side with others simply because they’re friends to the way even the smallest of an action can be responsible for something of a shockwave.
But what the movie gets wrong is pronounced, and frequently threatens to derail everything else. Most marked is Dixon, whom McDonagh tirelessly, and frustratingly, tries to vindicate. He is the film’s utmost mistake. His history of racism is treated as a quirky characteristic rather than a serious detriment. Scenes in the film depicting him perpetuating violence – there’s specifically one horrifying sequence where he throws an innocent out a second-story window – are often humorously portrayed. We are supposed to forgive him for his moral abominabillity because he’s dim-witted, still lives with his mother, and is shaken by the treatment of Willoughby, whom he views as a father figure.
But rather than directly and adeptly deal with Dixon’s heinous misdeeds and habits, McDonagh renders them all one-dimensionally, subversively using them as components to build an argument that, while Dixon is damaged, deep down, he’s capable of doing good. But this sort of arc – which also arose with the Matt Dillon character in Crash – is vexing, and progressively tiresome. While it is not out of the ordinary for a deplorable cinematic character to be given the opportunity to make good, it is still nonetheless bothersome to see him be sympathized with when we know there are countless individuals who have been physically and emotionally harmed by him who don’t get their stories told.
There are other articulated problems, like its writer-director’s onenote treatment of any minorities in the film, its acting as though political correctness is fatuous (when someone mockingly called Dixon a “person-of-color beater,” I was taken aback by the audacious insensitivity), and its usage of artifactual pop music during scenes of violence. Some of these problems can be taken with a grain of salt, given the movie’s pointed mordancy. But slip-ups are frequent: McDonagh has a hard time differentiating what can be mocked and what is actually offensive and short-sighted.
Holistically, Three Billboards is a provocative, prepossessing black comedy featuring a variety of career-best performances and gratifying displays of anger. But so many minute details are so wrongheaded, we have to remember that our being entertained cannot subdue the indisputable injuries that are being inflicted here. It’s not quite as bad as you might have heard, and it certainly isn’t as repugnant as Crash. But the essays addressing its racial insensitivity and McDonagh’s actual understanding of American culture are plenty valid. Enter with caution. C+