Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri * 2017 * Rated R * 1 Hour 55 Minutes
😸😸😸🌑🌑 Rated 3/5 Happy lap cats
Let me start out by saying this won’t be a traditional review and it will contain spoilers. This film is difficult for me to write about, and I almost skipped it. But I set a goal to watch and write about as many of the 2018 Academy Award Best Picture Nominees as possible, so here we are.
This film is the epitome of what’s wrong with Hollywood, the system of film criticism, and the awards organizations in this century. It’s a prestige film by every measure, awards bait that’s worked. It was written and directed by Tony-nominated playwright Martin McDonagh. It stars three respected actors, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell in roles that call on them to give their all. It tackles some of the hot button topics of the day in a unique, original way. It’s a dark dramedy with a script filled with witty banter and poignant moments, as you’d expect from an acclaimed playwright. That’s why I looked past my anger enough to give it a 3/5 rating. I’ll probably debate with myself over that rating forever, and think it should’ve been a 2/5.
But it left me so angry that I had nightmares overnight, and I never have nightmares. The film should really be titled Two Racist Cops in the Good Old Boy Midwest, because that’s what it’s actually about. Sure, we see a lot of Frances McDormand’s Mildred, but she doesn’t get the redemption arc or the character growth that Sam Rockwell’s racist cop does. She’s a rage monster running around town ruining everyone else’s lives with her inappropriate anger.
In the end, her billboards accomplish almost nothing positive. But they traumatize her son and herself, reignite the brutality of her abusive ex-husband, cause her friend to be unjustly imprisoned, cause a cop to be severely burned, cause another man to severely beaten and thrown from a second story window, and bring unjust humiliation for another man.
I’m sure I’ve missed some consequences. And some of these people aren’t innocent victims. But, it turns out, the police have supposedly done everything they can to solve the crime (more on that later). The billboards, which read, “RAPED WHILE DYING. STILL NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” are unnecessary.
They’re just a traumatized mother lashing out at the only target she has left, who doesn’t deserve it. Oh, and he’s dying of pancreatic cancer, and she knows it. So she’s just plain hysterical and evil, because the police chief is a kindly man who understands her pain. His only crime is in not making sure that she understood that they’d done everything they could. Or so the film’s narrative concludes.
The supposed premise of the film, that it’s about a bereaved mother who’s sick of her daughter’s case being ignored, so she decides to take action, is a mirage. Mildred is a bitter, stubborn woman who is angry with herself and the world, and she decides to take that out on everyone around her, including her surviving child. She doesn’t care how her actions affect him, or even, in the end, if she ends up losing custody of him to his abusive father. She puts her anger before everything.
The reasons for her anger are briefly thrown at us, but never explored. That’s an issue with the entire film, and the reason why it’s received so many complaints about racism, which I’ll let others more qualified than me address in depth. Like Ira Madison III of The Daily Beast, I too was nauseated by the film’s glib treatment of its black characters. Unlike him, I didn’t bother to laugh.
The combined misogyny and racism experienced by Mildred’s black female friend Denise, who is unjustly imprisoned without bail for days on a minor charge simply to harass Mildred, outraged me. She was chosen for arrest over Mildred’s male acquaintances because of both of those characteristics: being black AND female. And all Mildred does to try to get her out is tell the arresting officer to let her go. When he refuses, Mildred walks away, and tends the flowers she’s planted under he billboards.
WHAT THE H*LL? Where are the protests over a woman being unjustly held without bail? Why doesn’t Mildred help her get a lawyer? What kind of friend leaves a black woman she’s gotten arrested to rot in a jail run by cops who torture black prisoners???
But when Denise is finally released, everything is fine and happy, like nothing ever happened. Apparently these Good Old Boys stop short of sexual assault when they torture their prisoners. Even in a movie that’s supposed to be about the ramifications of a murder-rape.
This movie constantly brings up important societal issues, important character issues, and important plot threads, then just drops them. They go nowhere. We have no idea what they were supposed to mean. Other times, odd whimsical moments that were probably supposed to mean something or be humorous are thrown in, but the issues surrounding them are so serious that, for me anyway, they fell flat. Like so much in this movie, they only served to trivialize the issues the movie shows. Or they’re so out of character that they’re sickening and confusing in addition to trivializing the character’s pain.
I love a good dark comedy. I’ve probably seen hundreds of them over the years. I don’t know what this movie is, but it’s not funny. It’s grotesque.
Which brings us to what the movie is really about. The actual protagonists of this film are the characters played by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, the characters the trailers would have you think are the villains. Woody plays the police chief named on the billboard, Chief Willoughby. He’s a kindly, patient, wise man who understands the kind of town he’s living in and does the best he can with what he’s got to work with.
Willoughby walks a fine line in the film, trying to balance the town’s volatile factions. He tries to keep his police officers from harassing Mildred too badly, and tries to get Mildred to understand how bad things could get for her as the entire town turns against her for making them think about something unpleasant that they were done with. He shamelessly plays the cancer card with Mildred and the audience, but she already knows. She just feels her dead daughter trumps his cancer.
She’s wrong, of course. A respected man always beats a dead teenage girl who probably had it coming, and deep down Mildred knows that. She just doesn’t care anymore, and is ready to go down in a blaze of glory. The sheriff actually recognizes this and has some appreciation for her chutzpah, but he still can’t let her win.
Under his kindly exterior lies the town enforcer, who may not be particularly racist or homophobic himself, but who let’s horrible crimes, including those committed by his own employees, go unpunished. He’s not a good man, even though the film tries over and over to convince us he is. He just plays one in public.
Dixon tortured a black prisoner on Willoughby’s watch, and is still on the payroll. Willoughby decides to harass Mildred until she drops her quest for justice, rather than doing more to solve the case, or helping her understand why he reached a deadend. If he really did run out of options, rather than lose interest. His list of what he tried isn’t all that extensive, and none of it involves traditional detective work or physical evidence beyond DNA samples.
Halfway through the film, Willoughby kills himself rather than die slowly of cancer. First he gets his wife drunk to the point where she passes out on the couch, and then he goes outside and shoots himself. He doesn’t give her any warning. She has to deal with a suicide and two young children while intoxicated. Did he think she’d just wake up and find him in the morning?
He treats his wife like a child rather than a life partner. Then he purposefully makes sure that people will wonder if he killed himself because of the billboards, knowing that Mildred will be violently harassed because of it. That’s not a good man, and it’s especially not a good sheriff, who’s tasked with keeping the townspeople safe. But he sees himself as a fatherly, godlike figure right up until the end. He writes multiple letters for the people he leaves behind, sharing his final wishes for them and his last words of wisdom.
Sam Rockwell plays Jason Dixon, Willoughby’s racist, violent, intellectually challenged deputy who was raised by a cruel, abusive mother who still dominates his life. Yep, the torturer is absolved of his crimes from the start, because his mom was mean to him. It’s always the woman’s fault.
Dixon’s name itself is a play on the Mason-Dixon line, the cultural border between the southern slave-holding states and the northern free states. Giving Dixon this name firmly plants him in the category of downtrodden working class southern boy, a victim of history and circumstances beyond his control. The film would like us to believe that turning out this way was inevitable for any white male born and raised in his time and place, so we can’t really blame him for his actions.
Indeed, all it takes for him to change is a few fatherly words of praise and wisdom from the sheriff. Once he receives his letter of spiritual guidance from
God Sheriff Willoughby, and does his 40 days and 40 nights in the desert as penance recovers from serious burns inflicted by Mildred when she bombs the police station, he becomes a new man. He carries Mildred’s daughter’s case file with him, and resolves to solve the crime. He even finds a murderer-rapist that he can bring to justice.
Because this film believes that we just haven’t loved torturers hard enough yet. If enough white men tell other white men how good inside they really are, they’ll be able to take care of “normal”, able-bodied white people the right way. With their guns in hand, their vigilante justice aimed in the right direction, and even getting over their misogyny enough to let a ballsy white woman join them. As long as we can go shoot someone, hand in hand with our former enemies, the other issues are irrelevant. Welcome to Martin McDonagh’s America.
He’s spent too much time watching packaged media, and not enough time with real people. Every character is a stock character. Every subversion of type is predictable. The three leads have made their careers playing roles like these. There are unpredictable moments, but saving the troubled young man by sacrificing the father figure and giving him a strong mother figure is not exactly revolutionary.
I understand what McDonagh’s trying to say. I just think he does a lousy job saying it, and his statement (it’s not a message) isn’t worth watching the movie for. It’s certainly not worth 7 Academy Award nominations when other deserving films and artists were shut out of the nominations.
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox