Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and all the images you see in this review are owned by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Martin McDonagh
To tell you the truth, I never really liked In Bruges. It was fine I guess, but I never found it all that compelling and the ending is just a contrived mess that’s about as bad as sixty percent of the twists Shyamalan has come up with. And yet, there are a lot of people out there that like that movie as well as McDonagh’s other work, so naturally the buzz around this film was huge right off the bat which only grew once the trailers started coming out and we got to see some of Frances McDormand’s acting. At the very least, it manages to grab your attention with its unorthodox title (A COMMA!?) and even more unorthodox premise that will hopefully take advantage of the ideas that seem baked right into this material. Does this manage to live up to the hype that its beloved director and solid marketing campaign has built up for it, or will this end up a huge stumble for everyone involved? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) driving down the same road she’s driven down for years and years; heading home after a long day at work and trying hard to deal with the grief over her daughter’s death. Not just any death too! She was raped, murdered, and burnt to a crisp, so forgetting about that is proving to be a bit difficult, especially since the cops never found the guy who did it. That’s when Mildred comes up with an idea. On this road she’s traveled many times before are three billboards that no one has used in decades, so she decides to purchase the ad space and put up signs reminding the denizens of this small town that the police still haven’t caught the murderer. Now obviously this ruffles some feathers down at the station, particularly Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who’s about as dumb and racist of a cop that you’d expect from a story like this and to a much lesser extent Sherriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) who’s leading the stalled investigation and is the primary target of Mildred’s ire. Things begin to get much more heated around town as several people begin to question (and stupidly try to attack) Mildred and her decision to put this spotlight on something that everyone would rather not think about and leave up to the cops. Mildred is having NONE of this and starts kicking ass and taking names at everyone who looks at her sideways which only escalates tensions further in this ticking time bomb of a standoff with her on one side and the rest of the world on the other. Will Mildred finally get justice for the death of her daughter whose killer roams free while the police do nothing? Just how far will Mildred go in order to get what she wants, and will she lose touch between what can and cannot be justified in her righteous quest? Just how much saltier will Frances McDormand get in this role before she wins that Oscar gold!?
What a miserable experience this utter slog of a movie turned out to be! I may not have Mother levels of righteous fury for this film’s utter disdain to good taste and quality film making, but we’re certainly circling the drain of one of my least favorite types of movies. This film and its ilk are the cinematic equivalent of some asshole saying “I’m not being mean; I’m being honest” who barely understands what the hell they’re talking about and are coming from a place of such privilege that they are utterly blind to it. These film makers have the nerve to try and center about the feckless and hostile rot you find in too many police stations around the white working class because if there’s ONE group who’s been trying to get the word out about police brutality and the injustice inherent in the criminal justice system, it’s the same people who are filling those ranks and benefiting from said inequality. Black Lives Matter and other groups have been fighting tooth and nail to bring up the public consciousness around these issues, but NATURALLY a big Hollywood movie about it (no doubt in the running for several nominations in the upcoming awards season) has to convey this through the viewpoint of a white woman, and while that COULD have been a solid idea in and of itself if the film makers wanted to comment on how often this happens in the film business (*cough* The Help *cough*) and even in real life, this movie fails to do anything even slightly that thoughtful and just gives us reheated WHITE WORKING CLASSTM pho-populism. There COULD have been a genuine story about too many white people’s obsession with framing ourselves at the center of other people’s movements (once it becomes politically convenient of course) and how problematic that is, which I’m sure is a word that this movie would kick me in the nuts for saying, but there’s just no grounding element to effectively communicate the depravity of the situation or to establish an ideological disparity between that of our main character and the film makers who are telling the story. So what are we left with? A movie as miserable through and as obnoxiously self-righteous as its main character, which I guess SOME people will like, but I really don’t have the patience for it.
Alright, so before I start turning into Mildred myself, let me try to come up with SOME things that the movie does right. I will say that it is a well-made movie overall and that a lot of the scenes in this, taken out of the context of the crappy movie they are in, are incredibly effective and show just how much talent was working on this. Similarly, the actors do great jobs in the roles they are given; even ones that are underutilized like Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Caleb Landry Jones who give stellar performances but aren’t in the movie nearly enough. Francis McDormand, despite being an incredibly hateful character has enough charm and inner turmoil to the performance she gives that you can really see what could have been if the film makers know how to frame her properly within the story and hadn’t indulged so much in its own clueless rebellion. Heck, even if we take the movie as a whole instead of picking out individual good parts, it’s STILL better than Fight Club which I find to be an apt comparison and is coincidently my LEAST favorite movie of all time. It has that same smug self-satisfaction in pushing buttons while not having the intelligence and careful storytelling to back it up despite OBVIOUSLY thinking that it does. It’s got SOME humanity to it even if it comes out in awkward fits and spurts which I guess is enough to keep me from TRULY hating it the way I do Fight Club and even puts it a step above Mother which is similarly so self-assured in its grandeur that it feels like it can get away with anything. The sights on this film are much smaller and it doesn’t take itself QUITE as deathly seriously as those other two films which thankfully means this wasn’t AS torturous to sit through, but it still was a frustrating watch all the same.
Now that I’m done playing GOOD COP (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk), let’s get into why this movie is absolutely painful to watch. Now I mentioned before that the movie doesn’t take an ideological stance for itself to differentiate the film’s point of view from that of Mildred, but that’s not entirely true and it’s yet another thing that annoys me about this movie. The character of Mildred is clearly lionized throughout the movie; shot like a larger than life mythic figure and constantly backed by a soundtrack that adds to the triumphant nature of all her actions. What are those actions you may ask? Well she does A LOT of things in this movie, but the ideological framework from which all her actions are based can be summed up as FUCK FEELINGS, GET RESULTS. She lacks all form of empathy for anyone around her, she uses bigoted language just to get a rise out of people, she’s always pointing out everyone’s failings in service of her own agenda, and she’s basically the same kind of jerk who’s always asking for the manager wherever she goes. Now in SOME instances, this is the correct approach (except for the bigoted language) to take such as when she’s point out that the cops are clearly staffed with incompetent and bigoted shitheads and when she calls out the Catholic Church on its complicity in abusing children. When it DOESN’T work though is when she starts committing crimes of her own and never owns up to the consequences of it. Not HELPFUL crimes by the way; stupid shit like assaulting teenagers and massive amounts of property damage. Things that aren’t helping her in what is supposedly her stated goal of finding her daughter’s murderer (or at least motivating the police to keep the case active) yet whenever she REALLY fucks up or whenever the movie needs to make sure we don’t start disliking her (or at least more so than I already was), they are quick to pour on the sentimentality; not just in terms of individual character building scenes but as basic plot justifications as well. How does she get away with all the crap she’s pulling, ESPECIALLY when she starts committing legitimate crimes? Well no one wants to arrest the woman who lost her daughter to a violent crime. Why should we care about her when she’s actively detestable to everyone she meets? Well let’s throw in a scene of her crying while thinking about her daughter. The movie wants us to go along with her crusade and to “lighten up” whenever she gets overly mean or starts throwing out epithets to make her point, but then doesn’t have the courage of its own conviction to be as “brutally honest” as it were with its own main character; using the tools of manipulation that the film itself is telling you are wrong and unhelpful.
It gets even worse when we get to the political side of things which goes even further into its cringe filled understanding of police violence and… well everything else. It has such a patronizing view of bigotry that a major subplot in this is trying to convince us that Sam Rockwell’s racist and fascists cop character isn’t ALL bad, or at the very least trying to manipulate us in some awful and crass ways to get us to feel at least SORRY for him. The movie also minimizes his victims to make this all the more palatable which… yeah, no. No fucking dice, movie. I’m less concerned with how shitty his life is or how pathetic and insecure he is under all the cop bravado than I am with the ONLY black woman in the entire movie getting locked up and completely disappearing from the entire movie; ESPECIALLY when her arrest is only important in terms of how it affects Mildred. This is supposed to be a movie about cop brutality and we’ve got almost no minorities in the ENTIRE cast with the few that DO show up existing just to buffet Mildred’s ego and reinforce her saintliness to the audience? FUCK THAT SHIT! The movie even goes so far as to pretty much admit that her disagreements with the methods of the police chief and the shoddy way he manages his officers aren’t necessarily a barrier towards mutual respect; something I doubt was reciprocated with the black woman who was thrown in jail (off-screen) due to trumped up charges to get a rise out of Mildred; something by the way that in NO WAY impedes said mutual respect between her and the chief. This is white privilege in a nutshell and if ANYONE who wasn’t white tried to do what she does in this movie, well it’d probably be a much shorter film as she would have been arrested, shot, or worse by the time we hit the thirty minute mark. Maybe this is intentional and MAYBE the point of the movie is to show how contradictory her actions are or how crappy we can all be when we feel we’re on a righteous path. Maybe the obvious whiteness of the film is a commentary in and of itself of the kind of setting a story like this could only take place in. If that’s the case though, I just don’t get the sense that anything WITHIN THE MOVIE is pushing that message along and is something we would need to bring into the film ourselves; putting our own values and judgments on the material the film doesn’t want to take a solid stand on. Sure, there IS a black character brought into the third act to be somewhat of a voice of reason, but he just doesn’t have enough to do here and I’m not in the mood to sit through a movie that wants to “leave it up to the audience to decide” whether bigots are all bad or if it’s okay for white people to be front and center in crusades against institutions build on white supremacy.
Look, I’m no expert on any of the subjects I was just exposing about and I’m sure much smarter people than me can make much more cogent arguments for and against the merits of this movie. I can just tell you how I felt coming out of it and I was really annoyed by the utter ego on display; whether it was the overwhelmingly white cast talking about issues from an overwhelmingly white perspective, the use of bigoted and hurtful language for no other reason than shock value, and the way the movie tries to manipulate your emotions at the same time its telling you to not fall for such tactics. I don’t know if this is one of the WORST movies of the year as I probably disliked other high profile movies like Mother and Wind River more than this one, but I still don’t recommend seeing it. It’s got a few decent performances in there along with a couple of brilliantly shot set pieces, but they’re lost in a sea of toxic muck that makes the whole thing just too unpalatable to enjoy the things that it manages to get right.