Summary: A grieving mother seeks answers to her daughter’s death.
This year’s frontrunner for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a weird, dark comedy about a mother who puts up (yes) three billboards questioning the local police department’s lack of activity in finding the person who raped and killed her daughter. Labeled as a dark comedy, Three Billboards questions our definitions morals, the means by how we judge character, and paints everyone a shade of grey.
Let’s get right into it: I saw this two days ago and I tried to let it sit because there’s something about Three Billboards that isn’t sitting right with me. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but there’s something that’s not settled- maybe I’ll figure it out here. I walked out feeling slightly unfulfilled but entertained nevertheless.
Three Billboards is first and foremost an actor’s piece and it is worth to see this for its performances. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, we see veterans such as Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes (I love you!), Zeljko Ivanek (background guy you’ve seen before), and Clarke Peters. (Peter Dinklage also shows up, but don’t let those posters fool you- he has about ten lines and five minutes of screentime.) The acting here is exceptional and everyone either floats between the dramatic and comedic. McDormand makes a seamless transition between the two and deserves every bit of accolade. I’ve been a fan of Hawkes since Deadwood- it’s been really nice to see him in the range of roles he’s been getting since then. Rockwell is equally as impressive.
However, while the performances are phenomenal, I can’t quite say the same about the characters themselves. I’ve only just started doing some reading into Three Billboards in an effort to stay away from spoilers and it seems I’m not the only one. Each character starts on their own arc with a pretty big bang and have great momentum from there. Somewhere within the last 20 minutes, it noticeably slows down and ends with a bit of a whimper instead of a resolution. Maybe that’s just McDonagh’s comment that Mildred’s quest will never quite be fulfilled or that the film’s conflicts will always exist, but I had a lot of questions without that sense of resolution.
Like, what is the film’s overall stance on rape and sexual assault? Other than giving Mildred (McDormand) motive, there’s not much to be said, concerning kind of person would do it, or the grey lines that might hide it, or how it affects its victims. There are a couple of good moments where it seems they may explore the complexities of the issue- such as holding the investigators responsible for the lack of answers- but they disappear rather than take force. Mildred is threatened with sexually charged language while she’s at work- but there’s no fall out of this event. Why is this bad? On a more obvious note, Three Billboards also doesn’t have much to say about racism… except… that… it’s kind of bad… but people who perform acts propelled by outright racism… but then do something kind of good… should be forgiven (“very fine people,” anyone? Anyone?). Despite a great performance, I found several issues with Dixon (Rockwell). He’s accused by several characters of using his badge in inappropriate ways (because again, he’s outright racist), but comes off as not only lovably stupid but is also given a redemptive arc that has nothing to do with that first bit… so… I mean, I just assume he still has that same mindset towards the few minoritized characters and that’s not absolved, so what is this film’s ultimate message on people like Dixon? Why should he be forgiven if his accused actions aren’t rectified or no form of development is displayed?
Not to say that serious topics can’t be handled with moments of levity or in this tone- for the most part, I found Three Billboards to be engaging and subversive. There’s something riveting and ultimately satisfying about watching an angry woman act out against a system that has failed her- at one point, even setting the police department on fire. I like what the Three Billboard’s is trying to do and the questions it poses about good and bad and the ultimate greyness of humanity, but it doesn’t seem like they foresaw what other issues and controversies might pop up. For me, it overshadowed the film’s overall message about seeking peace of mind. I’m not sure if McDonagh intended to provoke more questions about the above subjects, but the clumsy handling of two of this decade’s most prevalent subjects in this country leaves much to be desired.