Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: The ad campaign that inspired the movie.
Perhaps my admiration for Martin McDonagh’s previous films (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) made my disappointment with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that much more acute. I waited as long as possible before publishing this, but the Oscars® are this Sunday. If you have not seen the movie, stop reading here. There be spoilers.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri *
Writer-director-producer Martin McDonagh (<em>Seven Psychopaths</em>) presents the story of a heartbroken but otherwise rarin’ to go woman (Frances McDormand, billy-club blunt) who plasters the titular roadside ads with a direct question to the local police chief: why haven’t you caught the guy who raped and killed my daughter? She’s gotta do something to stave off the feeling that “there ain’t no God and the world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other,” and the billboards are close at hand. It doesn’t matter that the chief (Woody Harrelson, laconic) is a good man who is dealing with cancer, or that a violent man-child cop (Sam Rockwell, alarming) is out to stop her. She’s suffered to the point where suffering holds no more terror for her. Yessir, shit gets real. Or does it? For starters, McDonagh works way too hard to inject nearly every scene with his patented solution of acid wit and dark-roast comedy: <em>go ahead, laugh in the face of horror, I dare you.</em> It’s jarringly effective until it starts to feel like shtick, at which point it works only as a numbing agent. For another, his fondness for the outlandish and over-the-top doesn’t mesh well with his effort to tease out the ordinary humanity in his creations. And finally, there’s a serious over-reliance on coincidence and underportrayal of consequence. Good acting, though.
For the first hour, McDonagh was firing on all cylinders. His characters were fresh and the dialogue, for the most part, was as appealing as it was appalling. Had a little animated devil appeared on my shoulder at the 56-minute mark whispering, “Leave now and make up your own ending,” I’d have swatted it away with a cartoon Poof!
Let the Academy bestow upon the picture as many acting awards as they see fit. All the nominees are deserving. It’s the script and direction that come up bupkes. Here are ten reasons why the film doesn’t deserve any of its technical nominations, let alone potential awards.
1) Didn’t jokes about cops eating donuts go out around the same time as gays being depicted as limp-wristed, poodle-carrying interior decorators and/or hairdressers? Another easy target: pedophile howls ensue when Mildred comes home to find the town priest consoling her son.
2) For the sake of ease and clumsy, over-theatrical foreshadowing, the Ebbing Advertising Company is staged directly across the street from the Ebbing Police Department.
3) This qualifies as half-a-knock: on top of being a world-class alkie, Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is homophobic and a virulent racist. How he’s held down a job as a peace officer is questionable, but in Trump’s America, anything is possible. Some object to the lack of retribution meted out in the end, going so far as calling it redemptive. This isn’t the ’30s where crime didn’t pay and anyone breaking the law was going to meet with a long stretch in the pokey or, worse, a bullet. Being torched isn’t enough punishment for Dixon, but let’s face it: assholes change overnight only in movies. If Mom is any indication, her boy’s incivility is eternal.
4) Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Mildred (Frances McDormand) go way back. Considering how well-versed the two are in each other’s backstories why, when first they meet, does he address her with the more formal “Mrs. Hayes”? And in a town as small as Ebbing, how is it possible that Mildred and Anne Willoughby (Abbie Cornish) have never met?
5) The unsolved murder of her daughter apparently gave Mildred the right to use a drill to clean her dentist’s thumb and solve a problem at her son’s school by twice introducing her foot to a student’s crotch. In a real-life universe — which I assume is what McDonagh is working hard to authenticate — actions such as this would never go unpunished.
6) There is no coincidence in having a set of spare billboard covers in case of emergency. That’s far more logical than Dixon and Red (Caleb Landry Jones) winding up as bunk mates in the same hospital room.
7) By way of comic relief, the script calls on Mildred’s ex (John Hawkes) to shack up with a stereotypical 19-year-old, the type who’s too stupid to pour piss out of a boot with the instructions printed on the heel. (Thank you, Lyndon Johnson!) Keeping alive Hollywood’s penchant for goofing on dumb blondes is one thing, but McDonagh seems to have a score to settle with young women. Why else would Dixon later coldcock Red’s secretary? The unexpected blow neither deepens nor advances our understanding of his character and as such is included solely to elicit shock. Or, in the case of the matinee audience I saw it with, laughter.
8) Here’s where it really began to lose me: Dixon pummels Red and his secretary, going so far as to toss the former out a second-story window. All of this is witnessed by a new character, an African-American gentleman standing outside the station, with morning coffee cup in hand. Dumbfounded by what he has just witnessed, he ruffles his suit coat and the gesture reveals a badge belonging to Willoughby’s replacement (Clarke Peters). It’s one thing to demand that Dixon be fired on the spot. After what he just witnessed, shouldn’t Dixon have been booked for assault and battery?
9) When Willoughby dies, the picture goes with him. Officers return with news of his suicide, but Dixon doesn’t hear them, what with Abba’s “Chiquita” blasting in his ears. The moment office furniture begins to be tossed, off come the headphones. If Dixon can detect the admittedly amplified sound of his fellow officers grieving, surely he would be able to hear three Molotov cocktails exploding outside the police station within feet of where he stands?
10) A mysterious drifter who may or may not be the actual killer of Mildred’s daughter pays an unexpected visit to the gift shop. That’s almost as easy as having the next-door neighbor turning into a homicidal homophobe just like that. Then again, it worked for American Beauty!