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Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017; Directed by Martin McDonagh)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes me wonder what has happened to its writer-director Martin McDonagh. This reaction might not have been the anticipated one, seeing as how the film won three Oscars and even more Golden Globes and BAFTAs, making it McDonagh’s big awards-circuit breakthrough after his first two unruly but frightfully clever genre films Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges (the latter being one of my favourite films of the 21st Century, an underrated classic). Three Billboards was greeted by not only awards voters but by critics and audiences as McDonagh’s finest and most appealing cinematic work yet, headlined by Oscar-winning performances from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and providing an acerbic and morally complex take on American social problems of policing, race, misogyny, and rural disintegration. What’s happened to Martin McDonagh, I ask? Why, he’s only gotten better, nearly everyone else answered!

Perhaps what Three Billboards makes most clear is not what has happened to Martin McDonagh, but what hasn’t happened to him. What hasn’t happened is him that he has moved forward as an artist or storyteller or polemicist. The London-born, Irish-descended McDonagh was an acclaimed playwright before moving into film with In Bruges, his biting black comedies about contemporary Irish life mixing nimble borderline-tiptoeing “edgy” humour with serious social examinations and even tragic themes. He’s still crafting those kinds of stories on the big screen, and he’s even making practically the same exact kind of “edgy” jokes that he always has, in a manner that is exposing their limitations as well as the plausible-deniability tactics that obscure their offensiveness. In my review of Seven Psychopaths (which I thought was okay, but at least saw McDonagh interested in the relatively fresh ground meta self-reflexive questions of representations in media, particularly of violence), I wrote that “the quintessential McDonagh joke offends on its face while acknowledging both the cause and the rightness of that offence; it will call out discriminatory assumptions while scoring a laugh off of them, and then inflate them to such outsized proportions so as to upend them again.”

Maybe because I loved In Bruges so much and held onto such goodwill for McDonagh as a writer, I wanted to believe that what he was doing by playing with offensive stereotypes like this was sophisticated and critical. I convinced myself and tried to convince anyone reading that he wasn’t just lampshading. Three Billboards makes it painfully clear to me that he is lampshading, and probably always was lampshading, in the terminological sense of distancing himself from the offensiveness of the stereotypes at the heart of his dark comedy by calling attention to that offensiveness and/or placing it in context while still using a shared knowledge (and generalized prejudiced acceptance) of those stereotypes to get a laugh. McDonagh certainly likes to pepper his writing with ableist and homophobic slurs, and even the N-word, but since his characters are either just prejudiced people or openly point out that it’s not PC to say those kinds of things, it’s fine and obviously only a dullard who didn’t get it would actually be offended. He also goes hard on “midget” jokes for the second of his three films (In Bruges‘ person of short stature was played by Jordan Prentice, but felt like a role that McDonagh wishes he could have gotten Peter Dinklage for; in Three Billboards, he gets his Dinklage), which makes him the most cutting-edge satirical humourist of 1954, I suppose.

The lampshade-hanging sharp-tongued comedy of Three Billboards is not really the primary problem with it, but it dovetails neatly with the unsubtle contrivance of the film’s dramatic developments. This is the kind of dramatic movie in which a hardened-in-grief mother (McDormand as Mildred Hayes) who has lost her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) to a brutal rape and murder flashes back to the last time she saw her child on the night that she died, and the last words Mildred says to the bitter Angela after denying her use of the car to go out for the night is to concur with the teen’s petty sarcastic parting epithet that she hopes that Angela is raped and murdered. Nearly every plot moment lands like this, with the subtlety of a hammerstroke and with an oppressive, smothering irony. Most of them derive from Mildred’s idiosyncratically confrontational response to her grief and to the local police’s lack of traction in investigating the crime: she rents the titular triptych of successive billboards on the side road that leads to her home and plasters an accusatory message aimed at the failures of local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to solve the case. Since Ebbing is a tight-knit community and it’s also shared-secret public knowledge that Willoughby is dying of cancer, Mildred’s J’Accuse…! style of advertising is not popular, to say the least, and leads to a local backlash (although it’s worth interrogating McDonagh’s text as to how much of that backlash is realistic or believable).

Almost nobody likes these billboards. Obviously Willoughby doesn’t much appreciate it, struggling as he is with the legacy of his failure to find’s Angela rapist and killer and the heartbreaking reality of his mortality and leaving behind his wife (Abbie Cornish, whose chosen accent is bizarre and unplaceable), his two young daughters, his officers, and his beloved horses. Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), who abused her and then left her prior to Angela’s death for a 19-year old (Samara Weaving, who manages a couple of decent comedic beats in a thoroughly thankless role), certainly doesn’t agree with it, nor does her high-school-age son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). The local police are predictably resentful too, especially bigoted, drunken shitheel Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), who is notorious for having tortured an African-American man in his custody. Dixon proceeds to cover himself in even greater vainglory, arresting Mildred’s black female gift shop co-worker (Amanda Warren) on trumped-up possession charges in retribution, and harrassing and eventually nearly killing Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the homosexual local advertising agent who rents the billboards to Mildred.

The escalation of Three Billboard‘s drama is, as implied, fairly overheated and contrived, driven by manipulative plot necessities more than character psychology or local social forces. The cast sells it as best they can, and McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell give as near to the best as can be given in service of the material (the flinty McDormand is the most clearly spectacular; she could win an Oscar for every role she ever played and you wouldn’t find many objectors). McDonagh aims for a portrait of ambiguity and messy human frality and imperfection quite purposely, though not as thoughtfully as he might think or intend. Three Billboards is not a film that judges any particular character in totalizing moral terms, not even Dixon, who is a horrid, racist, homophobic, dimwitted, pathetic prick until he suddenly, improbably rallies from a low ebb to become a dogged crusader for Angela’s killer in a whiplashing last-act redemption arc. Better critics than I have analyzed why McDonagh’s arc for Dixon is irresponsible and even offensive in terms of racial politics, so I leave that point to them. But it’s also emblematic of the deepest-seeded problem that Three Billboards has, the one that ultimately drags it down: Martin McDonagh doesn’t understand American society, culture, and politics as well as he thinks he does, and his supposedly searing cinematic critique of its core issues comes off as paternalistic tourism (there was an element of this to In Bruges, but tourism was part of the core joke there).

Such tone-deaf arrogance, you might scoff, a Canadian critic chiding a world-renowned British-Irish filmmaker and playwright for not “getting” America. But to anyone who has ever been to the States or even so much as consumed some of its media (and who hasn’t done that?), great swaths of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri come across as entirely wrong, unfair, or even offensive (and not in McDonagh’s usual winking “we both know this is offensive but let’s have a penetrating laugh at it” manner). The intense, supposedly-probing focus on the inhabitants of rural red state flyover-country (“The Heartland” of America, in that racially and partisanly coded nomenclature) so often either ignored or marginalized or stereotyped by Hollywood is, well, rife with stereotypes of people from that part of the world. The examination of the fraught and divided social views of the police is facile, the consideration of racial issues is hardly a consideration at all but the writing equivalent of dumping the loose contents of a packed purse on a table and inviting the audience to paw through the items for what they might be looking for, an approach without discernment or focus or sensitivity to traumas felt by some Americans but not felt or understood by others. There’s a staged quality to McDonagh’s vision of Ebbing, a theatrical quality that you might have expected from a playwright-turned-film director but which In Bruges and especially Seven Psychopaths did not display in the same way. Treading into more unfamiliar territory geographically and socio-politically, McDonagh retreats to framing that he knows better to anchor the work, it seems; this goes for the music as well, which bookends Irish folk poem “The Last Rose of Summer” as the film’s choice aural elegy for American life.

The very British-Isles understanding of discrimination and prejudice being grounded entirely in socioeconomic class pervades Three Billboards; working class suffering is the common denominator, the core assumption of social and emotional struggles. Martin McDonagh knows that race is vital to understanding American social, economic, and political power relations, but he can only invoke it as a push-button comedic/dramatic shock tactic, a literal trump card to be played (take every charged potential meaning of that wording to be entirely purposeful). There are superficially fascinating and potentially deep themes simmering tantalizingly in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, half-posed and entirely unanswered questions about the role of advertising in directing the mass psychology of capitalist societies (the opening glimpses of the derelict billboards are exquisitely, artfully photographed by cinematographer Ben Davis, summoning ghosts of The Great Gatsby‘s symbolically-charged fragmentary billboard of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg) and the position of the police as punitive agents of power maintenance more than as the endlessly culturally-celebrated ideal of crime-fighting arbiters of moral equilibrium. The concept of rural America in particular and of America in general as a culture and society in decline and decay is invoked as well; the town is called Ebbing after all, and the root verb comes up in dialogue as if to re-emphasize the point (very few of McDonagh’s points here are judged to be unworthy of exhaustive re-emphasis).

But none of this rises beyond quasi-literary colour, like Willoughby and his wife referencing Oscar Wilde and the former maybe even identifying Wilde’s life-ending plight with his own cancerous decline. Of course, Martin McDonagh would identify with an Irish playwright, but would a small-town Missouri police chief? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is full of such details, large and small, that are raised and emphasized but never really seem to be the point. It grants the film the illusion of complexity and richness and depth without the bother of actually labouring to erect them. Three Billboards purports to be a film about grief and loss and prejudice and injustice and love and redemption and forgiveness and revenge and race and power and all of those other Big Ideas. But what it ends up being about is how Martin McDonagh can’t wrangle these Big Ideas into a thematically and emotionally coherent film, so he papers over the incoherence with surface-level cleverness and button-pushing provocations. Perhaps what happened to Martin McDonagh is that his ambitions outstripped his creative grounding, and his desire to be taken seriously by the segment of American mass culture represented by awards-bait movies led him astray from the knowledge-base that he drew from in his best work. Write what you know, right? Martin McDonagh doesn’t know America, unfortunately, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes that fact painfully clear.

Categories: Current Affairs, Film, Reviews
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