Microsoft honestly needs to stop with this stupid product placement. Ebbing, Missouri? Really? C’mon guys, you’re better than that.
Following her daughter’s murder, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three billboards on a country backroad, questioning the determination of the Ebbing police department to find the perpetrator. Mildred is primarily opposed by police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). As people in the town begin to take sides, things quickly devolve into vitriol and violence.
I don’t really want to go through this movie’s entire plot, because I don’t think it’s that interesting, but I do have a few notes about it. Namely:
What was up with that guy that threatened Mildred? He like passes through town and stops at her gift shop and threatens her, and then just leaves. Then later, Dixon overhears him at a bar talking about doing something very similar to what happened to her daughter, so the police run a background check on him. Apparently, he’s in the military and wasn’t in the country during Angela’s death, so that rules him out as a suspect. But he does still brag about raping a girl, and setting her on fire. Is this a common thing? What are the odds that two identical, incredibly specific crimes happened at the same time? Also, why was he there in the first place? We’re told that he lives in Idaho or whatever, so why is he in Missouri so frequently? He’s not a truck driver or anything, he’s in the military. What is this man’s obsession with Ebbing?
Also, nothing about Denise’s character makes sense. Dixon arrests her early on after his mother tells him to “go after Mildred’s friends.” She then promptly disappears for two acts, before coming back at some point. Everyone in both the movie and the audience basically forgot that she existed. Did no one care that she was being held, in custody for so long? Even she doesn’t seem too upset about it. Whatever.
Finally, why was Woody Harrelson’s wife a hot Australian model, 20 years his junior? I mean not to flame Woody, his on screen romances tend to tilt in his favor (cough, True Detective, cough). But it makes even less sense in this movie. Like, his wife is super Australian, so obviously she grew up there. How’d she end up in Ebbing? We know Woody’s been the police chief for a while, so it’s not like they moved there together. And she’s way younger than him, so they couldn’t have met in school? I guess this mans is so irresistible, women cross oceans just to be with him. But enough about Rampart.
America’s most eligible bachelor:
The people in this movie were a lot like play characters, which isn’t that surprising given Martin McDonagh (the director) writes plays. They’re all very quirky, with unique speech patterns, mannerisms, and manners of dress. Characters are generally recurrent throughout the story, and their actions and interactions play off each other in a very linear, sequential manner. From this, the entire script feels really contained, like everything was thoroughly planned out. Woody even compares his rivalry with Mildred to a chess game.
That being said, I don’t consider Mildred to be that interesting of a character. She’s rude, bitter about the loss of her daughter, and dresses like a mechanic despite working at a gift shop. That’s basically it. It doesn’t really help that she was pretty much wrong about everything: the police department basically did their best, and instead of accepting Woody Harrelson’s apology she knd of starts ranting about how there should be be a national database of men or something? Like, the point of the movie is that her anger just creates more anger around her, but it’s still really difficult to take her side when she won’t listen to reason. Frances McDormand was really good, though.
While Sam Rockwell was pretty much universally praised for his performance, his character also happened to stir up some controversy. Basically, some people were mad that the movie portrayed him as sympathetic, and that such a racist character was given (as the NPR pop culture podcast put it) a “redemption arc.” I think that a lot of people criticizing Dixon are kind of missing the point. Jason’s most relevant characteristic is not that he’s white, or a cop, or racist, or anything of that nature. It’s that he’s dumb. (Bear with me).
Dixon is incredibly obedient to the two authority figures in his life (Woody Harrelson and his mother). He’s protective of them, and when Woody leaves him a note following his death, he takes everything said to heart. He’s emotionally unstable, and subject to extreme outbursts, as evidenced by when he’s informed of the chief’s suicide. He often trips over his words while speaking, and himself admits that he’s not very good at English. He’s generally unobservant, and overly concerned with how others’ view him. He’s often seen reading comic books, or listening to music. Obviously, all of those factors point to him having some mental deficiencies. But you know what other group of people share similar traits? Children.
That’s right, kids!
Three Billboards is not trying to Shut Up and Dance its audience into questioning their moral alignments, nor is Dixon Martin Mcdonagh’s attempt at lowkey calling racist people mentally handicapped. How I see it, Jason Dixon is this movie’s attempt at representing the cyclical perpetuation of racism across generations. Most of Jason’s viewpoints come from his mother, who makes some offhanded bigoted comment in pretty much every scene she’s in. Jason forms viewpoints much like a child would, basically echoing the sentiments of the adult figures in his life. Rather than contradict his mother, he passively agrees with her, directly adopting most of her stances. In this way, Jason is indoctrinated into sharing his mother’s beliefs, and goes onto repeat them in his everyday life. I think that Jason is probably the most interesting character in this movie, potentially one of the best-written and acted of the entire year. Sam Rockwell kills it in the role, of course, but even Dixon’s place in the narrative gives this movie a much stronger thesis than the one it seemed to be trying to go for. (More on that later).
Every other character in the film is mostly fine, other than the ones I commented on earlier. I especially liked Mildred’s ex-husband’s girlfriend, Penelope, as well as Peter Dinklage’s character.
Characters in Three Billboards speak in an odd, stilted manner, often being unnaturally blunt. For instance, when Willoughby initially meets with Mildred, he basically tells her “I have cancer” out of the blue, to which she responds with “I know.” Dialogue is often unnatural and somewhat forced, with characters basically speaking to each other as if they are directly channeling the writer’s instructions.
Martin McDonagh’s irishness also comes through in the repetitive use of relatively archaic southern language. While it works out most of the time as a stylistic choice, there are scenes in which it sounds kinda weird.
All that being said, this movie does have some incredibly funny moments. McDonagh took full advantage of the idiosyncrasies he wrote into his characters, often making jokes at their expense. Because of the script’s persistent levity, the movie never really approaches the “dark” end of “dark comedy.” While not all of the humor landed, there were enough successful hits that Three Billboards ended up being one of the more entertaining movies I’ve seen this year.
Use of Violence
Characters in this movie are regularly impolite and violent toward one another. In Martin McDonagh’s microcosm of Missouri, this becomes normal. Think of it as a sort of heightened realism. What is decidedly not normal is how characters react to this. Most of the time, people seem completely unphased by insults, crude language, or brutality going on around them. Characters are generally able to act violently with minimal consequence. However, there are points where suddenly things turn serious, and people do get called out for acting in the same manner as basically everyone else was already. This makes it unclear what the movie’s actual point on violence is in the first place. It’s repeated near the end of the film that “anger begets anger,” which seems to be about what this movie is going for, but then things happen which undercut that. I think the film’s overall thesis is very blurry, and I don’t know if it did that good a job of getting its points across.
In addition to having play-like characters, the movie was also shot similar to a stage production. Characters are seen at one of a few specific locations, and actors are blocked out in a very specific manner. They’re often in one place for the entire scene, mainly speaking to each other, and when there is movement, its purposeful, such as someone attacking someone else, or for a visual gag. Sets are small, minimalist, and frequently reused. In terms of the outdoor footage, there are mainly static, artsy shots with little movement in them. When something does happen, it’s typically one subject changing while everything else stays still. This gives the shots a sense of calm, and works to diffuse a lot of the tension built up in the more dialogue-intensive scenes.
The one scene in the movie that deviates from this pattern is when Dixon beats up the advertiser that sold Mildred the billboards, Red Welby. The movie employs a nice tracking shot, following Jason from the police station over to Red’s office. The camera stays positioned in such a way that’s mostly on an extreme close-up of Dixon, showing us his perspective throughout the event. While this scene is definitely distinct from the rest of the film, it was done very well, and was effective in presenting the action that took place.
In both the opening and concluding sequences, there’s this pretty Opera score that’s overlayed onto the footage. Despite the visuals consisting of some billboards on a road, or a car driving along it, this serves to romanticize the setting, and provides some weight to the imagery.
Music is also used throughout the film as a backdrop to violence. Dixon’s assaulting Red is scored by this sentimental indie pop song, and he’s also seen listening to music during Mildred’s arson of the police station, resulting in his failure to notice the fire (as well as him ending up in the ICU). While I don’t think the score itself was exceptional (something something Oscar nominations), it was certainly employed in some creative ways.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is a thoroughly entertaining film, with great performances, a funny script, and some interesting technical choices. Unfortunately, it’s held back by weird plot elements, an unclear main message, and a relatively unsatisfying conclusion. This movie had a lot of potential, and could have been incredible, but it ended up as just great. But hey, great’s not so bad.
Good for: Coen Brothers fans, The Academy
Pussies Those strongly opposed to violence in film
Bod R8s: 7.1/8