WARNING: The following is a SPOILER-FILLED review and critique of the critically lauded and Golden Globe-winning film.
‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘ is a mess of a film where motives, tone, and storyline is all over the place. I cannot remember having been jerked around and emotionally manipulated as much as I felt upon leaving the movie theater. Thank heavens the film is populated with an all-star cast on their A-game.
But even a world-class chef can’t make prime rib out of dog sh*t.
Ultimately, ‘Three Billboards’ is worse than the sum of its parts, and the blame falls on writer-director Martin McDonough and film editor Jon Gregory.
‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is being marketed as a “darkly comic drama” from Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). Months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.
The Whole is Lesser Than the Sum of its Parts
Despite my strong contempt for this film, the majority of the cast pour their heart and soul into the material that they are given. McDormand, one of the greatest actresses of all-time, buries herself in the role of Mildred Hayes. McDormand gets a few brief moments to showcase her versatility. She is an actress who will go any lengths to immerse herself in character. She shows no vanity in an industry that is soaking in self-congratulatory vanity.
Harrelson and Rockwell both shine in drawing out nuance and complexity in their roles. I think the ease that they are able to take McDonagh’s etch-a-sketch characterization and flesh them outcomes from (a) having previously worked with the writer-director, and (b) McDonagh’s affection for their characters. Willoughby and Dixon are proof that McDonagh not only fancies their characters more than Mildred Hayes, but that McDonagh is better at writing male characters than getting into the internal psyche of women.
The rest of the cast does an admirable job with the breadcrumbs they’ve been given for roles (what a waste of an opportunity to underuse Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage) but ‘Three Billboards’ is essentially a three-person play.
Why is ‘Three Billboards’ a “Bad” Movie?
Forget hype. Forget accusations that ‘Three Billboards’ is overrated or that criticism is backlash from its frontrunner status for awards. Here is why I believe ‘Three Billboards’ is not a good movie.
1. It doesn’t work as a dark comedy/drama.
What makes ‘Three Billboards’ such an epic misfire? Well for starters, it is either a grossly unfunny dark comedy, or a drama that undercuts its subject matter with misplaced attempts at humor. The tone and execution of this film is its biggest offense. The majority of humor is not only unfunny, it is cringingly unfunny. Part of the offense goes to the writing and part of the blame goes to editing. Jon Gregory is listed as the film’s editor. I don’t think he’s mastered the importance of timing, pauses, and space necessary to have humor effectively land in dramatic films. It can be done. The Coen Brothers and Tarantino have consistently infused humor and levity to counter moments of terror, threat, and violence. McDonagh and Gregory’s use of humor and levity undercuts the serious stakes at play in ‘Three Billboards.’
Film critic Robbie Collins, in his overgenerous five-star review, wrote, “It is a film that continually forces you to interrogate your own reactions to it – both in terms of what you’re laughing at and why.” Unlike Collins, I was forced to interrogate my own reactions to what I wasn’t laughing at and why.
One scene, in particular, encapsulates my problems with the film.
Charlie, Mildred’s ex-husband, pays her and their son Robbie a visit. Charlies is played by the criminally underused John Hawkes. It has been implied that Charlie beat Mildred while they were married, and his entrance stokes the tension and threat of violence. Things quickly escalate between the two and Charlie suddenly throws the kitchen table, strangles Mildred by the neck, and only yields when their son Robbie (Hedges) holds a kitchen knife against his dad’s throat.
“I’m not sure if there is a creative message buried beneath the surface, but if there is, I missed the point.”
The confrontation is diffused by Charlie’s 19-year-old girlfriend entering the home and awkwardly babbling about needing to use the bathroom. Her dialogue and character are intended for comic relief, but her character belongs in a different movie. Immediately, Mildred, Charlie, and Robbie pick up the knocked over furniture and resume their conversation like nothing happened. The tension is this scene was palpable.
The comic relief was forced, and the entire scene felt disingenuous and was sabotaged.
The violence in the film is horrific and undercuts any claims that the film is a dark or black comedy. When I’ve watch Tarantino or Coen Brother dark comedies, the out-of-place violence provoke bemusement and amusement. Deaths or acts of violence often follow with, “did that just really happen?” or a sense of shock and guilt for laughing at the scene.
There is one particular scene where I think McDonagh and Gregory successfully switch tones. Mildred Hayes is at the police station being interviewed (interrogated?) by Chief Willoughby. The banter between the two is biting and playful, elusive and ambiguous. The tension between the two continues to build when suddenly Willoughby coughs blood that splatters on Mildred’s face. They both freeze in shock and disbelief.
Willoughby is apologetic and scared. Mildred is concerned and compassionate. The tone suddenly shifts from humor and anger to worry and care. It is the best scene in the entire film. Perhaps McDonagh is better at framing a scene that switches from humor to pathos than going from tension to comedy.
2. The profanity felt forced and was distracting.
McDonagh’s writing style just doesn’t click with me. There is something about how he employs profanity that I find grating and disingenuous. I’m not against the use of profanity if it fits the characters and the world they inhabit. I think that is why despite my repulsion of the N-word, the characters in Tarantino films speak in a manner that is consistent with the world he has created.
McDonagh’s use of profanity, in contrast, is cheap, mostly for shock value, and either betrays the characters or tells us nothing about them. And if Tarantino is in love with the n-word, then McDonagh gets off on overusing the two c-words, “c*nt and c*ck!”
3. The film cannot decide who is the central character.
I was excited to see a film give Francis McDormand a huge canvas to showcase her acting abilities. And McDormand pours her heart and soul into her depiction of Mildred Hayes. The problem is that she is not given much to do and is a part of an ensemble.
‘Three Billboards’ really isn’t her story.
Mildred Hayes still an enigma to the audience by the end of the film, because the film and its filmmaker show little interest in digging deeper into the pain, guilt, and damage of her character. She merely functions as the first domino that orchestrates the chain reaction of events in the town and townspeople.
And because Mildred is not given any arc for growth or insight, the only change that has occurred in her is fatigue. She’s weary.
Contrast the limited character advancement that Mildred undergoes with the arc and focus that McDonagh pays to Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby or Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon. Willoughby dominates the second act and Dixon dominates the third act. And each exploration is at the expense of exploring Mildred Hayes.
I found the storylines of both men to be compelling. I think Harrelson provides the heart of the film, and Rockwell represents the hope of the film. But, I found both explorations to be all-too-brief, all-too-convenient, and therefore the resolutions felt quick, inauthentic, and unearned.
The film is sold as a mother’s vigilante pursuit of justice. It is headlined by Francis McDormand. Yet the film and its filmmaker seem more interested in the white, male characters. It is a tone-deaf mistake. It is either (1) an egregious error of marketing, or (2) a manipulative move in order to convey that the film is #woke despite its fixation of the white men. The women in ‘Three Billboards’ are not given as much time, depth, complexity, or conflict as their male counterpoints.
4. The racial politics of the film are disturbing by the utter lack of attention.
One of the biggest criticisms leveled at ‘Three Billboards’ is the so-called “redemption” of Officer Dixon. For the first two-thirds of the film, Dixon is depicted as one of if not the primary antagonist in the story. He has a reputation for being racist and abusive toward others. In one of the film’s most horrific scenes, Dixon is shown brutally attacking Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jone), the salesman who rents the billboards out to Mildred Hayes. It is a gruesome scene shot in one long, uninterrupted shot.
It is also the only scene where we truly get a glimpse of what Dixon is capable of and how he’s probably earned his reputation in the town. Dixon returns to the police station after being fired to collect his things and reads a letter Willoughby wrote him urging Dixon to resist anger and favor love. And then Mildred firebombs the police station and Dixon suffers severe burns to his face and body.
He finds himself in the same hospital room as Red Welby, the salesman he assaulted and severely injured. Dixon apologizes, Welby indicates a degree of forgiveness, and soon Dixon shifts to the key protagonist in the third act of the film.
Now, I’m not sure how much Dixon finds redemption in the film, but the pivot the film makes to focus on his journey in the third act is just one more example of how tone-deaf McDonagh is. Did he not realize how problematic people would find Dixon’s storyline, especially after the first two-thirds of the film is building up how despicable of a person he is?
And then to have the film demonstrate so much care, sensitivity, and empathy for him without addressing the racist reputation he carries is dismissive and insensitive to the audience.
5. ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’s’ moral compass is “Injustice for All.”
What’s the point of the film? What’s the central message or endgame for McDonagh? For me, the film’s arc is to showcase “Injustice for All.” Everybody in the film suffers. Those who commit crimes get away with it. Those who are decent still suffer due to injustice, and life goes on.
The women in ‘Three Billboards’ are not given as much time, depth, complexity, or conflict as their male counterpoints.
Mildred Haye’s daughter was brutally raped, murdered, and burned. Her killer or killers are still at-large. Charlie was a notorious wife-beater. He even assaults Mildred in the film, long after their divorce. Nothing happens to him. He gets away with it. Mildred’s friend and coworker played by Amanda Warren is arrested, and nothing happens. Officer Dixon has allegedly beaten people of color and the audience witnesses him relentlessly attack Red Welby. He gets away with it.
Yes, he loses his job as a police officer, but he doesn’t get arrested or put in jail, or face any legal consequences for his actions. Charlie, Mildred’s ex-husband burns down the billboards. Nothing happens to him. Mildred herself assaults two teenagers at the local high school. She gets away with it. Then Mildred firebombs the police station and badly injures Office Dixon. Nothing happens to her. She gets away with it.
So a movie that burns with anger about injustice spends two hours showcasing all the characters getting away with every crime they commit. I’m not sure if there is a creative message buried beneath the surface, but if there is, I missed the point.
Tell me I’m Wrong – Share Why You Like or Love ‘Three Billboards’
There really isn’t anything comedic or profound about ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.’ I’d love to hear those who have seen it why they believe it is a “good film.” I’d acknowledge that it has some good performances, and perhaps it thinks it’s saying something meaningful … but again, I do not think it is a “good film.” Critique my critique and convince me why I am wrong. Because I for the life of me do not understand this film.