2018 BAFTA 2018 Nominee film

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri | Review ★★★☆☆

Frances McDormand's raw, wiry performance towers over McDonagh's blackly humorous but problematic dramedy.

In titling his latest project, Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, writer-director Martin McDonagh could have looked to Michael Wolff’s feverishly popular expose into the Trump Whitehouse for inspiration. There is much fire and fury in McDonagh’s blackly comic portrayal of a fictional town in the Mid-Western state of America, a state that voted strongly for the current President. Though Wolff’s book concerns the alleged peculiarity and intransigence of the man himself and his administration, McDonagh appears to visit upon those who might feel sympathetic to Trump’s campaign message with a sense of topicality and urgency. While his darkly humorous style and bold premise attempts to reflect the audacity of the billboards themselves, Three Billboards becomes a problematic dramedy whose lead performance is its boldest statement.

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What McDonagh methodically builds here, highlighted in Carter Burwell’s Morricone-esque acoustic score, is a modern Western stand-off that alternates (unevenly at times) between the comic, the beautiful and the bleak.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three disused billboards on the edges of her town Ebbing, castigating the local police force in bold black font and blood-red backdrop, for failing to find her daughter’s rapist and murderer. Embattled by the community that feel for her loss but cannot find the support for her defamation of reasonable, popular police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), Mildred takes no prisoners in her one-woman stand to get recognition and justice for her daughter. Her crusade against the police force earns only her son’s contempt (Lucas Hedges), further alienation from her community and run-ins with the thuggish, simpleton officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). As the police tactics to defame and unbalance her turn nasty, despite the reassurances of the calm, collected Willoughby to re-open a case that he deems hopeless, Mildred’s anger shows no sign of abating as she increases, by degrees, her relentless campaign against them.

Characteristic to McDonagh’s earlier film In Bruges (and sharing his brother John McDonagh’s penchant for ‘gallows-humour’ in The Guard and Calvary), Three Billboards depicts its relationships with a sharp, black humour that cuts from intense sniping to quietly, kind affection within a moments; switching from embittered to compassion and back again accordingly. This is a difficult place with difficult people, as stripped down and exposed as the disused billboards that McDonagh presents so evocatively in the opening sequence shrouded in fog with Friedrich von Flow’s Last Rose of Summer from the opera Martha played with a bygone joy- the past is now truly behind us. What McDonagh methodically builds from his melancholic opening, highlighted further in Carter Burwell’s spaghetti-inflected acoustic score, is a modern Western stand-off that alternates (at times unevenly) between the comic, the beautiful and the bleak. Beneath the simmering tension is the festering anger, both personal and political, that emerges from the apathetic and negligent responses of societies’ institutions, whether they be the police, the church, the nation or the family. ‘Ebbing’ doesn’t just speak to the name but the fate of the place and its people which McDonagh tries to bring to the screen in all their provincialism, bluntness and humanity.

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For all her hardened exterior, hair tied behind a bandana and buttoned into an overall-ready for the fight- Frances McDormand never lets us lose sight of the emotional exhaustion and vulnerability that lies beneath Mildred Hayes. The role forefronts all of McDormand’s incredible range and skill.

Yet, the result of McDonagh’s approach is to portray the complicated and difficult moral and social situation of contemporary America that feels trite, nebulous and exclusive. As other critics have noted, his attempt to reckon with race and racism in the police is problematised not only through Rockwell’s cop who in the film’s third act receives an unearned redemptive arc (but offering no conciliation to his black victims) but just the shallow and glib manner in which police torture and detention of black Americans is evoked and then backdropped in a film released post-Detroit (which, while one of my worst films of 2017, depicted unflinchingly with the psychological and physical trauma of discriminatory police brutality).

It is the anger of the mid-West’s white civilians, embodied in Mildred and Jason, from that institutional neglect, the shifting racial positions (represented in Clarke Peters’ appointment as police chief after which Jason wistfully tells his ailing mother ‘The South ain’t what is used to be’) and the violent backlash seen in Mildred’s often self-righteously destructive campaign or Jason’s reprehensible reactions that McDonagh wants his audience to recognise or else. The writer-director appears to call out for understanding, sympathy and reconciliation for a desperate middle-America, but without taking stock of all those who have suffered and continue to suffer as consequence. Perhaps this is indicative of his vantage, as an outsider and thereby he struggles to go any deeper or any further, exampled mostly in a script that has Willoughby, as obvious sympathetic foil to Mildred’s righteous anger, merely tell us about ‘the decency’ of those others though never really attempts to show us. The contradictions within these characters, the ambiguity to their nastiness and decency, is writ large enough to never feel truly rooted or sincere.

However, despite this failing, McDormand’s performance is towering: nervy and tender, unpredictable but never faltering in asserting her taut presence and unrelentingly no-nonsense approach on whomever comes across her path. She’s prone in a moment to setting the score straight and crystal clear with everyone (from upbraiding the police’s racist brutality and asserting the local pastor’s complicity in institutional child abuse in her wounded, weathered world-view) to embracing her adversaries, especially Harrelson’s Willoughby, when confronted with their own struggles. For all her hardened exterior, hair tied behind a bandana and buttoned into an overall-ready for the fight- she never lets us lose sight of the emotional exhaustion and vulnerability that lies beneath.  It forefronts McDormand’s incredible range and skill, at such a contrast to the equally tough but fiercely bright and proactive cop Marge Gunderson in Fargo over twenty years ago. Only Harrelson and Rockwell convincingly hold their own as ensemble players, with the supporting cast ranging from the effective (Peters) to the rather superfluous (Peter Dinklage) though fleshing out this provincial, esoteric American town.

Three Billboards tries to be tough and honest, rolling up its sleeves to grapple with the contentious subject-matter with equal measures of gusto and pain. It makes for difficult viewing, but not only due to that subject but also the manner in which McDonagh tries to handle it and the limitations that thereby brings. McDonagh’s rendering of this place and community feels distinctly, but problematically, like a drive-by: examining only what stood out most on the side of the road during his detour into disenfranchised America.

3 comments

  1. First of all, pretty much everything you said about the movie is categorically incorrect. Good job on that. I’m getting tired of people from the left or right coast trying to psycho analyze middle America in which I also live. This movie isn’t about race relations. It’s about one woman’s outrage about inaction over her daughter’s rape and grisly murder. With her fighting back she rubs most everybody in Ebbing Missouri, including a serious asshole cop that hates most everyone except other cops.
    Her anger is understandable but oft misplaced. Harrelson’s character is the middle ground, the referee between McDormand’s character and “Dixon’s” character. Complicating the plot is Willoughby’s pancreatic which brings a sense of urgency for Mildred and some unexpected compassion. One extraordinary scene reveals that if not for her daughter’s demise, you understood that her and Willoughby would be much closer.
    Because of her decisions, she runs afoul of Officer Dixon, whom is a total buffoon and violent asshole. This is where almost all critics have missed the point of whom Dixon is. He pretty much hates all stripes of humans. That critics turn this into a race relations procedural is just fucking bonkers and really, really fucking dishonest. And just so you know the actor that plays her son is Lucas Hedges, not John Hawkes, Hawkes played her ex-husband.
    McDonaugh wasn’t attempting to make a film revolving about race relations but rather a film about rage, loss and grief.
    It’s not as if McDormand’s character is some pure as driven snow angel either. Her character even understands this about herself as evidenced in some of her interactions with some of those in her sphere of influence that are willing to stand up to her, including Dixon’s character.
    What’s so great about this movie is that the characters in the movie aren’t simply black or white but various shades of gray.
    One last thing, McDonaugh isn’t trying to transform Dixon’s character with this giant redemptive arc, but rather show that even a dolt such as Dixon can find it within himself to enact some personal change for the better. That’s the simple truth. That McDonaugh sets the film in middle America is just to plunk the location into small town America where most everybody knows each other. This was the common thread throughout the movie. Think of whom the suspected killer is… a guy from with outside their community, someone they don’t know but perpetrated a terrible crime against one of their own. This act caused a fracture among the victim’s family and to those that are living in the community to those that a tasked to protect the community. That’s the ultimate truth, not some left or west coast critical view of post racial middle America.

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    1. Thank you for your critical response to the review, you’ve given me quite a lot to mull over and I appreciate you reading it and taking the time to respond.

      I take your point that (though I’m UK-born and based, not from the West or East coast on the states) I’m an outsider looking in on Mid-West America through McDonagh’s film. I’ll also admit that perhaps I’ve looked at it through the political climate of our times, though I’m not the only critic or reviewer to note this in either a positive or negative reflection upon the film. Though this is on the immediate level a story about an individual woman’s anger over police ineptitude, I made connections through the threading of this theme (anger via neglect and disillusion) through the film in other characters (Dixon) and specific scenes McDonagh creates (ie. the billboards at the beginning being in states of disrepair and lack of use combined with von Flow’s music) to disenfranchisement.

      I also did not say this film primarily concerned or criticised this film as if it were about ‘race relations’, though I feel that ‘race’ plays a critical role within the film. I also don’t think McDonagh intended to make a film about ‘race’ nor foreground that particular issue in Missouri however he does raise the issue several times (most notably in referring to police brutality) which has implications that are worth critiquing as I did in the review. I don’t think the manner in which I reviewed the film was disingenuous as to massively distort McDonagh’s narrative and intentions as in to get everything ‘categorically incorrect’. I actually agree with you that this film is concerned with anger and I also think the performances are terrific (McDormand’s is especially strong- a career best).

      I’ve seen this film only once and I would like to see it again, perhaps as you say I’ve not considered the nuances or ambiguities in the characters in quite the way in which you’ve engaged with them. Thank you again for the criticisms and I’ve amended the mistake on Hedges/Hawkes.

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      1. Thanks for responding, I’m aware that a great many critics are also calling out the error of Dixon’s redemptive arc given his racist tendencies. What I am telling you is that, yes, he may be a racist but beyond that he’s just an asshole at heart. At two critical points in the movie, McDonagh reveals Dixon’s true character. After Willoughby commits suicide Dixon goes on a rampage and beats Welby up and throws him out the window then reconfronts him out in the street and says to him and I’ll pararphrase as accurately as possible. “You see Red, I got issues with white people too”
        The second is when he reads Willoughby’s letter to him. He says “you have to have love in your heart to be a detective” so clearly Willoughby’s character is a father figure for Dixon. This is why his character changes after the fire bombing of the police station. This is the reality of the story. Dixon isn’t interested in trying to be some knight in shining armor, he’s trying to be better as Chief Willoughby would have him be. It just so happens once he was in the right circumstance he decides to act on behalf of someone else. Which is a sign of love within himself. I mean that’s the beauty of that singular moment in the film. What I find utterly galling with critics at the current state is that this plot point is completely overlooked. Jason Dixon gets dealt with as he should eventually, but that’s not the gist of the story. The story is about Mildred’s grief/rage and how it runs contrary to those in their small community. She offends Jason and reacts the way he does, not because so much he doesn’t want to hear her side but Chief Willoughby is his hero father figure and he also believes that what a cops says goes.
        The error that critics are making is to sensationalize the racist aspect of Dixon’s character and somehow decide that’s how the movie should orient itself. Him being racist is just one way of describing how crappy Dixon is within the context of the story. The movie deftly goes back and forth between the fiery, in your face moments to the tender moments.
        How can anyone not be floored by how amazing the scene with Chief Willoughby and Mildred and his spitting up spell. That’s great filmmaking and storytelling. I agree with you that McDormand’s performance is astounding. I believe she will, in fact, win her second Oscar in March. However, so should Rockwell. His performance is very unflinching and truly committed. You can’t think about the movie without thinking of either one.

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