Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ★★★

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), from the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri, whose daughter was raped and murdered seven months before the start of the film. Since the investigation of Mildred's daughter has progressed rather slowly, Mildred decides to do something drastic about it. She rents three billboards from Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), that have the words "RAPED WHILE DYING", "STILL NO ARRESTS?", and "HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?" written on them. These billboards, with a background so red they would give Nicolas Winding Refn a hard-on, cause outrage among the town's police department, led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and the impulsive, bigoted cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

This is a film I have very mixed feelings about. On one hand, it is an excellent study of how anger drives human beings into making the most bone-headed decisions we can ever make. On the other, it is a painfully unsubtle attempt at social commentary on a country that Martin McDonagh does not seem to have proper understanding of, outside of its stereotypes.

About the film's backlash, Martin McDonagh has said the following:

“It’s supposed to be a deliberately messy and difficult film [...] Because it’s a messy and difficult world. You have to kind of hold up a mirror to that a little bit and say we don’t have any kind of solution. But I think there’s a lot of hope and humanity in the film and if you look at all those issues with those things in your heart, we might move on to a more interesting place. [...] We’re trying to do something that’s a bit little more difficult and more thoughtful.”

So, Martin McDonagh wanted to make a film that told a story more clever and mature than your average blockbuster. If that's the case, why the fuck did Martin McDonagh tell a story with just as much idiocy and lack of subtlety as the average Hollywood blockbuster? Oh, let's have a protagonist who's the stereotypical Southern redneck and have him named Jason Dixon. You know, like the Mason-Dixon Line that is considered the border between the Northern and Southern states?! Let's have black characters who serve no purpose aside of being tokens. That's clever and mature, right? Let's put Peter Dinklage in to have forced height jokes! Let's have a side character explain the subtext of anger in the film towards the end, because that's how subtlety works, right? Why did this film even have race as one of its many themes, when it was mostly unexplored and never presented from the point of view of a black character?! Is Martin McDonagh completely tone-deaf? Do you see how angry this film makes me?!

But if the excruciating overtness of the social commentary angers me so much, why am I not rating this lower? Well, this film has a lot of strong points to it, even if it comes off as pretty ignorant. This should be no surprise to me, especially since I genuinely liked Martin McDonagh's two previous films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The strengths of those films are also present here: the snappy dialogue (even if it can be a bit unnatural at times); the twisted humor, especially surrounding the circumstances of Willoughby's suicide; the great use of foreshadowing, with the beginning of the film being a personal highlight, and characters with somewhat twisted moralities.

It is these characters and the performances that elevated the film from being a bad one in my opinion. Frances McDormand is an absolute force of personality to behold, as her determination and decisiveness, fuelled by both anger and grief, is just as sympathetic as it is malevolent. McDormand made me completely invested in Mildred's arc. The same can be said for Woody Harrelson's Chief Willoughby, who does come off as unlikeable, but he is still a staunch believer of due process. But, his priorities are rather questionable. He would rather defend the reputation of his department, than actually solve the crimes at hand. It is the figurative game of chess occuring between Mildred and Willoughby that makes the film's exploration of anger truly excellent, and I wish it would have gone on further. But that would (sadly) be too conventional for Martin McDonagh.

Instead, we are stuck on Jason Dixon, a truly repulsive human being, who we are told, not shown, is a man with his heart in the right place. Yeah, you could argue that him taking care of his mother is a likeable trait, but it's really nothing special in the context of this film. He is just a violent bigot, who gladly tortures people of color, and at no point does his actions have any real consequences for himself. He is like the Gary Stu of failing his way towards redemption. A redemption he doesn't really have, even if the film wants us to sympathize with him, because he takes a beating in front of the only black people in Ebbing. At what point was I supposed to care about this character? Despite how much I like Sam Rockwell and his performance here, Jason Dixon felt like nothing but a failed experiment. I get that McDonagh wants to show us that nothing can truly be as simple as we want, but, couldn't he at least make the character of Jason Dixon more than an annoying stereotype? His apparent nuances were definitely not as well-explored as they should have been, as they felt rather shoehorned towards the final half of the film.

In conclusion, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a mixed bag for me. I admit it could go either up or down on a rewatch for me, but for now, this is just a mess of a film, that could have been potentially excellent. I recommend it primarily for the performances of the main cast.

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