Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Clarke Peters, Peter Dinklage
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: January 12th
I went into Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri thinking I knew what to expect. Not that I knew everything that was going to happen, or even that I could guess the ending — but I had a general idea of what I was getting into. Frances McDormand’s daughter was murdered, the police haven’t done enough to solve the case, so she puts big accusatory billboards outside town to keep the case in the public eye. The case probably doesn’t get solved because, since 2017, movies just love to remind us that the good guys don’t always win.
But then, Three Billboards wasn’t about anything I expected. Dare I say — it’s not even about three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. (Among alternate titles suggested with a friend were Woody Harrelson Inside Ebbing, Missouri and Ebbing, Missouri Nine-Nine.)
It isn’t inherently bad for a film not to match audience expectations, but it takes some doing to still make it emotionally satisfying and not let an audience feel misled, underwhelmed or confused by the time the credits roll. Since The Last Jedi came out we’ve all been talking about subverting audience expectations, turning a new page and making complex, morally grey characters, but here’s my two cents: a confusing film does not make it complex.
Clearly there is something I didn’t ‘get’ about Three Billboards, something every four/five star reviewer saw sparkling that I couldn’t spot after the third time Dixon (Sam Rockwell) was racist or Mildred (Frances McDormand) dismissed Peter Dinklage for being a ‘midget’, only for their characters to be played off as a sympathetic buffoon or a Tough Chick respectively. I’m capitalizing Tough Chick because, for all her grief and sense of justice that drive the film, I never felt that Mildred’s character went far outside the archetypal box.
Every actor in Three Billboards plays their character well, but the motivation and actions of those characters can sometimes be so baffling and meandering that even the most convincing performance can’t salvage a scene. It makes sense that Mildred would lash out, but her outbursts are so specific and oddly preachy that any emotion from the scene is sunk into trying to figure out why she’s constructed a strange analogy about LA street gangs and the Church.Three days post-viewing, I feel increasingly conflicted about a 3/5 rating for Three Billboards, but the hype for Three Billboards is so strong and the film is so confident in its inscrutable, meandering story, that I almost feel duped by McDonagh. It’s like he’s swinging a hypnotic portrait of Frances McDormand (with a very cool undercut) in front of me, humming, “The characters don’t make sense because that’s what people are really like… Real, complex people act unexpectedly to a point of being incomprehensible sometimes…”
The film definitely has its charms to commend it – its beautiful aesthetics, its powerhouse performances and laugh-till-I-wheeze comedy moments – but every time I think about Three Billboards, I have another question. Why was that half-baked priest analogy written in? Why were there two pretty dumb women devoid of personality thrown in for comic relief? Why was so much of the film about two nasty men in the Ebbing police department instead of Mildred? Was I meant to feel sympathy for these racist, homophobic, abusive men just because they had feelings too? Why did so many white people talk about racist police violence ,only for the movie to frame it as a far-off subplot? Why did some acts of violence beget consequences and some didn’t, seemingly at random? Why was the film so inconsistent in dealing with the repercussions of violence?
Could all these questions be answered in time? Yes, of course. But it matters that I had to pose them in the first place. Three Billboards isn’t an oeuvre of complexity and amorality — it’s just confusing.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t terrible, but it isn’t a masterpiece. It’s an oddly amateur stab from McDonagh at social commentary with a lot of heart – though it may be in the wrong place.