“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is one of the worst Best Picture frontrunners in years
This morning, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. As the film has ascended over the this awards season, it’s been met with a significant amount of backlash. In spite of this, Martin McDonagh’s film continues to position itself as the frontrunner at this year’s Oscars. If Three Billboards wins Best Picture, it will arguably be the worst film to do so since Crash.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead for the entire plot of “Three Billboards.”
Much has already been written about Three Billboard’s troubling racial politics by people far more qualified to cover the topic than me. Not only are these criticisms valid and correct, but they also highlight some glaring structural issues that plague the film.
Three Billboards centers on Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand. She’s a mother grieving the unsolved rape and murder of her teenage daughter. She rents three billboards to chastise the local police department, and specifically Chief Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson) for not solving the crime. It’s a solid premise, a towering cast, and it’s written and directed by Martin McDonagh, a renowned playwright and filmmaker. Seems like a sure bet, right? Unfortunately the film’s pedigree belies a bizarre absence of logic and some whiplash-inducing tonal shifts.
The biggest problem is Sam Rockwell’s Dixon, a local cop known for his racist violence against black people. The movie goes out of its way to highlight Dixon’s race-fueled abuses, with nearly every major character pointing it out early in the first act. It’s clearly articulated as THE character flaw the audience should be aware of. And yet, when Dixon is given his redemptive arc, it has NOTHING AT ALL to do with his racism! Instead, he simply learns how to be a better cop. Not in a moral sense, mind you, but he literally learns how to better collect evidence against a potential perp. That’s all well and good, but that wasn’t the guy’s flaw! What’s so perplexing is that it’s an unforced screenwriting error. Dixon could have just been generically violent towards everyone. In fact, the only people the audience actually sees him assault are white, so why make him racist at all? If you have no intention of addressing the core flaw of a character you want the audience to eventually redeem, why give him that flaw??
Even more baffling is that the redemptive arc Dixon is given, wherein he learns to control his temper and use his wits to do better police work, is completely negated by his decision to join Mildred as a vigilante at the end of the film. In doing so he’ll, by definition, return to the exact same extra-judicial violence he was practicing at the start.
But at least we’ve got screen legend Frances McDormand in a virtuoso performance of fire and fury! Well…while McDormand is given plenty of scenery to chew, the empty dialogue and nonsense character motivations never amount to more than the sum of their parts. It takes real effort to turn a mother mourning her daughter’s murder into an unsympathetic character, and yet Three Billboards achieves it! There’s a powerful message about misplaced anger and grief that the film seems to want to make, but it can never be quiet enough to allow that message to breathe. Instead, nearly every scene is punctuated either by violence or self-righteous monologuing. McDormand is an acting legend because her face can say so much with the subtlest glance, but she’s never given that opportunity here. Instead it’s all bile and rage, shouting and skirmishes. Watching Three Billboards made me pine for her vastly superior, far quieter performances in Olive Kitteridge and Fargo.
The film’s over-reliance on violent outbursts is apparent in what should be one of its most affecting scenes. It’s revealed through flashback that Mildred doesn’t allow her daughter to take the family car to a party. Her daughter, now forced to walk, yells “I hope I get raped!” and Mildred responds “I hope you get raped too!” Having that be the last thing Mildred says to her daughter should be a devastating reveal! However, because the whole scene bubbles with anger and cruelty, the flashback only reveals that Mildred’s trauma didn’t make her the raging asshole we now see, she’s always just been that way. It blunts the blow of what should be a powerful inciting incident. This lack of a character arc lessens our empathy at the precise moment the film should be reinforcing it.
Therein lies the central problem with Three Billboards. All its “heroes” operate on a baseline of hair-trigger violence at all times. Mildred assaults no less than four people in the film, including two minors. This, coupled with the tragedy that anchors the script, leads to wild swings in tonality. Three Billboards can’t seem to decide if it’s a drama or a pitch-black comedy, and as a result it whiffs on both. For example, a scene where Mildred’s ex-husband flips a table, pins her against a wall and then has a knife pulled on him by their son is played for laughs! If you’re going to make light of domestic violence, you’d better make damn sure you’re nailing your tone and messaging. Three Billboards really, really doesn’t.
Everyone in the film says exactly how they feel, and when they’re angry, they beat each other up. There’s no subtext, just text.
Such cartoonish violence is fine in, say, a Tarantino film, where situations are heightened and characters are over-the-top, but for an otherwise contemplative story about loss and mourning, it’s jarring. There are moments of quiet reflection, but they feel rushed and unearned. This is most notable in a non-sequitur scene where Mildred monologues at a bad CGI deer about reincarnation and nihilism. She might as well look directly into the camera and say “This is for my Oscar reel!”
I haven’t even touched on the multitude of plot holes and contrivances! The most obvious one being Dixon’s assault and battery of two people while the new chief of police WATCHES HIM DO IT! Sure, Dixon is fired, but he threw a guy out of a second story window in front of multiple witnesses! It’s never addressed why neither victim presses charges, nor why Dixon isn’t immediately arrested. Now, a smarter film could use this as an opportunity to discuss police brutality and how law enforcement protects itself at the expense of its victims, but nope! Later, when Mildred burns down the precinct with molotov cocktails, the chief asks her precisely two questions, then accepts her story without asking for proof or corroborating witnesses besides her date, who miiiight not be the most reliable witness (her date, played by Peter Dinklage, might have the most thankless role in this hateful film, and that’s saying something.)
So why is Three Billboards ascendent this awards season? I think it’s because on its surface, it resembles a film saying something big about America: sexual assault, police violence, how our culture fetishizes vengeance and individualism. But despite all its bloviating, the film doesn’t end up saying anything about any of it.
Three Billboards wants to be a statement on America in 2018, and unintentionally, it actually may be. Because the film feels so Big and Important, we imbue it with an unearned value. It’s loud, violent, angry, and filled with an overinflated sense of self-worth. But under it all there’s nothing but a rotten, empty core. And really, if that isn’t America in 2018, I don’t know what is.