Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Oscar bait disguised as a badass revenge story. In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh’s un-PC style here enters hyperdrive as he flailingly attempts to put America to rights. Frances McDormand plays a bereaved mother who clashes with her local community after putting up a series of billboards calling out the beloved local sheriff (Woody Harrelson) for his failure to find her daughter’s rapist and murderer.
It’s been lauded as the greatest role for McDormand since Fargo. Have those critics never seen Burn After Reading? This is all Oscar buzz. She is playing a variation on any of the late-career Liam Neeson roles, not a character with an internal life or a need to articulate one across the span of a movie. This is McDormand’s Taken, with the emotional stakes swollen by replacing a kidnapped daughter with a dead one. She is named Mildred, a clear nod to Mildred Pierce, Hollywood’s greatest mother/daughter conflict. One flashback has Mildred yell to her tearaway daughter, ‘I hope you get raped!’ It’s brazenly manipulative and unpleasant, and just one example of McDonagh choosing shock value to hide his inability to examine the human condition.
McDonaugh chooses the most grim, nihilistic outcome for every scenario here. He undercuts a horrifying domestic violence dispute wherein John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband grabs her by the throat and Lucas Hedges holds a knife to his. Five minutes later she is monologuing about beauty in the face of pain at a CGI deer. In one quite cleverly edited moment McDonaugh match cuts Harrelson’s child with another shot of his wife, who he starts kissing. To draw some strange incestuous parallel. It’s the kind of movie where the revelation of pedophilia wouldn’t even be a big deal. Just another brutal turn for McDonagh.
After the death of one character, letters to several of the characters are found. They narrate much of the second half of the film, interacting with the narrative much in the same way that the panned Book of Henry did. McDonagh gets away with it. The direction is so unrushed, unlike many the events depicted onscreen. The camera never seems to judge, despite how awful just about everyone on screen is. It reminds of Clint Eastwood’s classical form of modern filmmaking. Eastwood though upholds the notion of heroic possibility and helping your fellow man, while McDonagh sees people as monstrous and deterministic.
The messages of the Tarantino-lite script are ugly. The ugliness of the direction is in how well these messages are communicated. If, as the film’s PR would have us believe, Mildred is to be taken as the embodiment of ‘#nastywoman’, and McDormand’s no-shit awards circuiting should be seen as an extension of this performance, then the billboards are to represent speaking out or Breaking the Silence. But what does such an act of bravery bring her? There is no absolution, just endless cycles of hatred. Pissing in the wind. Yet at the same time, this cynicism is undercut by a Blue Lives Matter sentimentality that sees retribution for oppressors through pain and bodily sacrifice.
The racial dialectic in The Hateful Eight is, by contrast, so bitter and implicative of its audience that one wonders which lessons McDonagh has taken from Tarantino, and what his intentions are in a British-Irishman writing a polemical on the United States.
It is an indictment of contemporary film culture that The Beguiled can receive nothing but criticism for its minimal handling of its racial implications, while Three Billboards, a film with such lack of tonal control that a scene of sickening police brutality is immediately followed by a for laughs sequence of McDormand kicking teenagers in the groin, is showered with praise. Sam Rockwell, best supporting actor winner at last week’s Golden Globes, is rarely an interesting actor as much as he is an interesting looking one. His comic-racist cop (you’ll love him by the end!) is a total one-note performance. Will Poulter’s turn as a similar character in Detroit, a film whose white writer and director chose to wallow in black pain for its runtime, is a far more realistic performance. In Poulter you see ignorance as a sickness. Rockwell gives us a mischievous rapscallion. Mere references to his ‘torturing black folks’ are delivered with the offhandedness of someone as enamoured with white power as the characters. But Mildred’s best friend is black! And it is worthwhile pointing out how parole terms disproportionately affect minorities for minor misdemeanors. But this point is only made in regards to how it affects Mildred’s fight for justice.
This is the kind of ‘Trump’s America’ fantasy that is pushed on us repeatedly, that middle America is exclusively populated by ignorant, hate-filled idiots. I’ve never been there, but Three Billboards hardly leaves the impression that McDonagh has either. There is no regional dialect, no class disparity (possibly because he’s ignoring race), nothing that really roots the film within Missouri itself. For a film that purports to paint a picture of present-day America, it both glorifies his characters’ worst sides and patronises to their lifestyle.