Oscar Nominations 2018 – FILM REVIEW: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Dir: Martin McDonagh

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell), Best Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson), Best Orginal Music Score, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing. 

Score: ★★★☆☆

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards was the darling of the film festival circuit for a little while there. It seemed to strike a nerve with the wave of #MeToo and #TimesUp feeling in the movie industry. But whilst this movie is not entirely unenjoyable, ultimately it’s more than a bit silly. Three Billboards is centred on mother Mildred Hayes, more than ably played by the wonderful Frances McDormand, who in a bid for justice for her raped and murdered daughter hires three billboards on a backwoods road outside, yep you guessed it, Ebbing, Missouri. The billboards attempt to shame and spur on the local police department who are seemingly “too busy torturing black folks to solve actual crime”. The crimes committed against Mildred’s daughter are an emotive subject to say the least and it drives the story forward from start to finish through the undeniably powerful anger  and sometimes even pure rage of Mildred. The premise of the hiring of billboards to put pressure on local law enforcement is based on a real set of billboards writer/director Martin McDonagh saw “somewhere down in the Georgia, Florida, Alabama corner”. It’s a neat little concept that has a ring of truth to it that initially lulls audiences into thinking they are seeing a story “inspired by true events” embellished for dramatic effect. Unfortunately the film slowly descends into utter silliness, that moves into borderline offensiveness.

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Frances McDormand’s performance as Mildred is undoubtedly a powerful one.

No doubt the movie contains some dramatic moments, but too much of the film is over simplified and pretty ludicrous. Mildred’s “fierce” mother character is a perfect no nonsense heroine for women of a certain age, and it is indeed gratifying to see a movie starring a 60 year old woman making this kind of headway at the box office, however it’s unfortunate most of her appeal stems from the somewhat repetitive shallow device of swearing fits. Additionally Mildred’s strong character is in sharp contrast to the other younger women in the film who are treated with utter indifference or contempt by the film, in fact a couple of the other female characters are essentially offensive female stereotypes (young, pretty & dumb).  Another annoyance is Mildred’s token female black friend who has no impact on the movie whatsoever and is essentially just there to signal that Mildred isn’t racist like every other hick in Ebbing. The black characters in this movie are essentially the only characters she doesn’t “give a piece of her mind to” in the whole film, and when the otherwise irrelevant young black character who puts up billboards for a living arrives with duplicates to replaced damaged panels on Mildred’s ads the whole thing starts to have more than a whiff of M.A.A.F. about it (look it up). Unfortunately the movies neat little idea of small town race relations comes across as essentially outdated.

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“It’s ‘Persons of color’-torturing business, these days, if you want to know.”

The always capable Sam Rockwell is landed with the role of a cartoon character racist cop. Way too much sympathy is heaped upon a character who’s main traits are to be violent and racist. These qualities are re-defined into being slightly cute simply because he is dumb, and the white sheriff (Woody Harrelson) sees promise in him, oh and also just on a practical level the Sheriff notes if “You got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the fags.” Whilst that might be a fair point (and perhaps the films best bit of satire), and it is indeed OK for such characters to be seen as potentially redeemable or nuanced, ultimately when Mildred asks said racist cop character “So how’s it all going in the nigger- torturing business, Dixon? His reply, “It’s ‘Persons of color’-torturing business, these days, if you want to know.” it sums up the films tone deaf quality. It’s treated as funny that this racist violent is cop trying to grapple with ideas of political correctness. On the surface it seems funny, but in the reality of the context of the film its misjudged. Rockwell’s Dixon character is meant to be laughed at, but really the laughter is not one of a mercilessly mocking quality, it’s almost as if his antiquated racist views are to be seen as kind of cute and happily part of the fabric of small town America. I certainly wouldn’t recommend that the film sermonises and wags its finger in disapproval, films should always be a bit morally ambiguous so as to demand the audience make up their own mind but my feeling is this film is leaning into inviting you to have warm and fuzzy feelings about the man. It’s race relations as viewed through an entirely comfortable white prism. When a black authority figure does arrive to put pay to Dixon’s nonsense (Clarke Peters best known for his role in The Wire) his character is of little or no consequence to the film and is essentially a side note. I understand a large part of McDonagh’s appeal is to be brash, taboo breaking and provide characters who are not generally very well centred  on the moral compass but I just don’t think there is enough substance to this film to justify outrageously dumb young female characters, a likeable violent racist cop, all three black characters being of no substance, and some jokes at the expense of a “midget” (Game Of Thrones’s Peter Dinklage), it doesn’t even do a good job of handling the domestic abuse issue. The film to some degree has a winning formula to represent older women but does it at the expense of a flurry of other issues. The main issue is not that the film is overtly offensive, it’s really more that it doesn’t have enough pathos to make these facets work. This festival circuit darling is now without doubt going to undergo a backlash in the current climate with many who will consider it racist as it reaches a wider audience and will slow it’s progress at the Oscars. However the real problem here is the film is just not particularly good.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI
Martin McDonagh directs Frances McDormand & Peter Dinklage on set.

McDormand, excellent as always, manages approach the various gears of the role correctly. Rockwell pantomimes his way through his cartoonish role til things turn serious and he has to reign it in slightly. Harellson doesn’t need to stretch much as the town sheriff but what he does he does well (even if his character is problematic on a few levels). His wife however, played by former Home & Away actress Samara Weaving, is seemingly still only capable of the level of acting required in Summer Bay and almost everyone else in the movie is forgettable. The plot is filled with ludicrous, implausible and silly events that don’t mesh with the broader story being told. In the end the story of an abused woman, doggedly harassing a racist police department, about the rape and murder of her daughter just turns out to be a bit juvenile. Numerous of Mildred’s one dimensional outbursts are somewhat scathingly hilarious, but unfortunately almost every single one of them is in the two main trailers for the film, thoroughly ruining the payoff of scenes over and over again, more than any film I can ever remember. The movie offers nothing of interest in cinematic terms other than an ever escalating series of brash events. Audiences largely have, and will love this movie, but if they had to explain what they actually loved about it, I think they might run into some difficulty explaining it without sounding a little ill considered.

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