Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
*1/2 (one and a half stars)
If this film wins the honor of Best Picture, so help me...
Dear readers, we are now all aware that Writer/Director Martin McDonagh's critically acclaimed drama "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is gaining serious steam during our current Awards season as the film itself, plus stars Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, are receiving award recognition at one industry event after another. Now as these things happen there is a bit of a backlash from some critics and writers regarding the film and now after having seen the work for myself, you may count me among this movie's detractors.
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is powerfully well acted film but it is also one that is fraught with storytelling and tonal transitions that are downright sloppy, character revelations that are nothing more than manipulative plot contrivances, a strong tale of ineffective revenge merged badly with insincere threads of redemption for characters who have never earned the right, and worst of all, a conclusion of so-called ambiguity that downright sinks the film entirely.
Trust me, I am not attempting to convince you to not see the film, and frankly, I could not if I even tried as the film has indeed captured a considerable heat, especially during this period of #MeToo and #Time'sUp. But, I am here to tell you that what I saw felt to be disingenuous, a film that honestly asked just a little too much of me for characters I could not wrap myself around. In fact, despite the acclaim, I think that "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is a surprisingly hollow disappointment.
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a small town gift shop worker grieving the rape and murder of her daughter Angela seven months prior to the start of the story. As the film opens, Mildred hatches the idea to purchase advertising space upon the titular billboards which have not been in usage since 1986. With plans to keep her billboards up for one year, Mildred assigns each billboard with three pointed statements:
1. "RAPED WHILE DYING"
2. "AND STILL, NO ARRESTS?"
3. "HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?"
Effectively publicly shaming Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and the police department, which includes the alcoholic, racist, homophobic officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), as well as upsetting the townspeople, Mildred enraged plea for justice fully unfolds in a series of increasingly complicated and devastating events, the fallout of which proves that the path to moral rightness, especially through the weeds of revenge, is never a straight line and possibly one that is not attainable.
As the main plotline, Martin McDonagh has created an instantly involving and compelling pot boiler, one that can serve to explore themes of violence against women, the grieving process, as well as the often frustrating threads of law enforcement and the legal system when all we wish for is a combined sense of retribution, justice and closure, all of which may never arrive. In that sense, here is where "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" succeeds and where Frances McDormand certainly does provide the film with its best performance as her sense of loss and bottomless rage is more than palpable. Smartly, McDonagh and McDormand jointly create a character that we not only are easily able to empathize with but one that it also subject to a serious critical outlook as to her methods.
I admired how "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" refused to make Midred Hayes a character of pure virtuousness, a noble figure that we, as the audience, could easily root for. In fact, Mildred is more than a little unlikable, and her bad reputation as a town crank certainly precedes her. In fact, during one flashback sequence, we can even pose difficult questions concerning her effectiveness as a parent. And yet, her battle scars are more than apparent as we also learn elements of her past, all of which inform her present.
When focused solely upon Mildred Hayes, an din addition to the themes of revenge, retribution, resistance and redemption, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is a most effective story of loss filtered through Kubler-Ross' Five Stages Of Grief, with its main protagonist seemingly forever trapped within the stage of anger, a stage that is clearly making her increasingly unhinged despite her righteous fury. Again, what McDonagh achieves is the creation of a heroine (or anti-heroine) who we do not have to necessarily like but we do need to understand and in scene after scene (including a terrific one where she dresses down the town Pastor in her home), I feel we understand Mildred Hayes more than effectively.
That being said, I really feel that if McDonagh had truly riveted his story to just this character and Frances McDormand in particular, he really would have made a film that, for my sensibilities, would've have more than earned its high status. Unfortunately, McDonagh has loaded his film with all manner of superfluous characters and plot lines that not only served to undercut the power of the film's primary narrative, they ultimately pulled the proverbial rug out from under the film completely via motivations and revelations that were unnecessary and entirely unconvincing to say the least. Frankly, McDonagh was just asking way too much of me.
For me, where Martin McDonagh failed is within his depiction of the police characters, a collective of individuals that are lazy at best and vile to the point of being irredeemable at worst and yet, we are asked to give these characters the same breadth of understanding as we are asked to give to Mildred Hayes. Of course, and as previously stated, I am not required to like these characters but the level of understanding McDonagh was requiring of me was more than forced and I just didn't have it in me.
Without delving into spoiler territory, allow me to try and explain.
With regards to the character of Chief Bill Willoughby, I felt that McDonagh performed a fine job of establishing his status within the town as well as not necessarily making him an antagonist to Mildred Hayes but as someone who represents an impenetrable justice system that just will not work as quickly or as effectively as she may wish. In fact, Willoughby provides more than enough reasoning as to why her daughter's rapist/murderer has not been captured, realities that contribute entirely to Mildred's actions.
Now that would have been more than enough for this film. So why did McDonagh then further expand upon the Willoughby character by saddling him with a plot development that is nothing but a cheap, manipulative tactic to force us to provide sympathy when it is unnecessary? In fact, when we should be learning more about Mildred Hayes, McDonagh takes the film away from her to focus upon Willoughby's side story, which includes sweet sequences with his family as well as one of dark inevitability, also a cheap, manipulative tactic to keep those plot wheels spinning.
To be fair, I suppose if given another turn through the typewriter (ha ha), perhaps all of the Willoughby material could have possibly worked but there was the pesky problem of being asked to have understanding to a level that I was more than troubled by...Chief Bill Willoughby is a racist cop.
OK...for some of you reading this posting, that very claim against Willoughby may feel to be unjustified, especially as he never says or performs anything explicit. But that being said, Willoughby is the Chief of a police department that is notoriously known throughout the town as being a place where African Americans are routinely brutalized. In fact, when Mildred confronts Willougbhy about the police department's historical attacks upon its African-American citizens, he sarcastically answers that if he ejected every "vaguely racist" cop from the police force, then all he would have left are the ones who hate the "fags." Chuckle, chuckle. Yup.
Was Martin McDonagh perhaps making some sort of veiled commentary about the seeds of institutionalized racism within police departments, especially in the Southern states? I don't know. Although my cinematic gut tells me probably not as the film is not terribly nuanced. Yet still, McDonagh presents Chief Willoughby as the moral center of the film, a man possessed with a certain folksy charm, a pretty wife, two adorable little moppets, that aforementioned plot development designed to create a prefabricated sense of empathy and oh yes, the command over a full police department that just happens to carry a healthy reputation for torturing Black prisoners. Moral center for a character who is entirely complicit in the reprehensible culture of police brutality?! I'm sorry but I just could not get past that.
Even more reprehensible is the character of Jason Dixon (hmmm...is that a play upon Mason Dixon?), the police officer whom Mildred Hayes scornfully taunts with a scorched earth, "So...how's it all going in the nigger-torturing business?" To which, he replies, "It's 'Persons-Of-Color' torturing business, if you want to know."
Jason Dixon is easily the worst officer on the force by far as he is essentially the town drunk with a badge...if only he could ever find it. His racist mean streak is as deep as his utter stupidity, and again, without producing any spoilers, it would not be ruinous to say that he is also seeking to find some sense of deliverance. Unfortunately and most egregiously, we are also asked to unearth some sense of prefabricated, unearned sympathy for a character that only deserves a furious comeuppance, not the reward of a second chance after performing an act that could be considered heroic--an act that I was immediately unconvinced as to why he would even do what he does in the first place.
Jason Dixon is a character who, at a crucial point in the film, performs an act so explosively violent and unquestionably criminal but then, we are also expected to accept another scene set late in the film when an African-American man, with whom Dixon has been at odds from the opening of the film, comes to Dixon's aid! What?! Again, knowing the state of race relations in 21st century America, the tensions between African-Americans and the police plus the roles of the abused and the abusers of power, I was asked to accept too much, uncomfortably so and just as with Willoughby, I could not get past it.
My feelings and criticism are not commentaries upon the performances of both Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, as both of them perform their duties to utmost excellence. My criticisms rest in the fact that I could not follow this film where it wanted me to go precisely because if these men existed in the real world, they would have me strung up in a moment's notice. Or if I had been murdered, they would do nothing to try and solve my case whatsoever, and especially no tout of any sense of duty, justice and moral rightness. We're supposed to care because the screenplay says that we should and frankly, that's just plain lazy as far as I am concerned.
In fact, in an odd way "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" just smacked of something that would essentially appeal to the Trump supporter or voter--a film that upholds the virtues and respect of the police even when not one of them are remotely virtuous. McDonagh's film just smacked of the horrific "there are good people on both sides" argument to me. That even though these White men are all racist, homophobic as well as shiftless, slothful, alcoholic officers who seemingly allow most of their cases to go unsolved as we see them doing nothing but lollygagging around the police station or the local bar, they are all "good people."
Jason Dixon, in particular, is incredible as I wonder just how he has even been allowed to remain on the police force for as long as he has due to the entire town knowing that he is a racist that tortures arrested Black people. The police officers in this film are unquestionably corrupt individuals but you know, they love their Mamas, they love their wives and children, they go fishing, enjoy games of pool and so on. They're all "good people" at heart, right? No thanks, folks but I just cannot go that far and I am stunned that McDonagh would even ask that of me as a viewer for that is indeed where his story leads. It is unforgivable to the point of being nearly irresponsible.
And still, there are even more problems that poke destructive holes in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." McDonagh's screenplay and direction are often too sloppy to handle the both the mounting developments and severe tonal switches contained in his story. For instance, a flashback sequence featuring the last time Mildred saw her daughter alive is painfully on the nose. Peter Dinklage as a townperson with a crush upon Mildred is utterly wasted in the film as he serves not even one purpose (aside from one moment where his presence keeps those pesky plot wheels turning) but to withstand a barrage of "midget" jokes. And then there are those aforementioned tonal sifts from horrific violence to outright absurdist (in this case: tone deaf) comedy, and none of the parts fit or work at all
Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is clearly sitting in the enormous shadow created by the films of Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi's "A Simple Plan" (1998) and especially The Coen Brothers' classic "Fargo" (1996), yet it goes about its business with a powerful core undone by its unconvincing surroundings but truth be told, I was more than ready to award the film with the so-so two star rating, primarily because the core--that is, Frances McDormand--was so effective. But then came the film's ending...
As I am certain all of you know, an ending can either make or break a film for sometimes, the film's final moments, down to the last image, can make everything that came before all snap firmly into place or fall completely apart. I am certain that there are critics and viewers who more than appreciated the ambiguity contained in the conclusion of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" as it could be argued as an ending which exists as a question of the nature of closure through revenge and is it ever fully achieved. For me, those very questions had already been asked throughout the film but even with its faults, I felt that here is a section where McDonagh unearthed his most potentially challenging section of the film. That is if he were only brave enough to pursue it.
Yes, we are given the film's greatest moral quandary and before you know it, the end credits begin to scroll as if McDonagh could not have been bothered to even try and take his film to the wall. And in doing so, everything felt like a cheat, an act of self-congratulatory provocativeness that, again, the film never earned. Everything just stopped! And it all felt to be so stupid, so futile an experience that I wondered why I even wasted my time, as well as wondered why so many viewers have not been able to just see right through it.
Come Oscar night, I will not be surprised if Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" takes the grand prize (hey, my first prediction!) but believe me, I will not be happy about it. In fact, I have to admit to wondering if the momentum of this film is stemming somewhat from the #MeToo and #Time's Up movements, which in and of itself would not be a bad thing, so to speak. But, if there was a movie that inadvertently became a cinematic symbol for a movement as important and as overdue as this one, why not for a film that would truly provoke a sense of rightful outrage by remaining in lockstep with its central character, instead of shuffling her off to the sidelines in favor of a collective of inept, racist, "Hee Haw" rejects undeserving of our attention.
What a wasted opportunity in one of 2017's grandest disappointments.