This is a tough one. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018, Dir. Martin McDonagh) is a film which has had a real hype following it in the run-up to Oscar season. It will be weird to see how this film looks in retrospect, after the Oscar buzz, but McDonagh’s place in cinema culture at the moment is a bit of a weird one anyway. People still trip over themselves to acclaim his debut work In Bruges (2008), but opinions split around Seven Psychopaths (2012). His move to America did not seem to resonate with universal acclaim, even though I’m a big fan of Seven Psychopaths. Furthermore, McDonagh’s trademark of black(est) comedy, of violence wrapped up in bone crunching and rib tickling detail simultaneously, is one he continues to nestle into. A tiger can’t change his stripes, the only thing he can do is move around. That move around has come in Three Billboards, a murky rage filled revenge tale.
It’s a move which pulls no punches, regarding its subject matter or its humour. You laugh but feel bad. Moments of darkness are confronted with lilting southern belle ballads, McDonagh continues juxtaposing the light with the very dark, creating this awkward space for the viewer to sit in and feel conflicted. Should I laugh? Should I feel bad? Why do I feel both? In a story so bleak and often brutal, as Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) puts up three billboards calling out the Chief of Ebbing Police (Woody Harrelson) for not doing enough to solve the case of her daughter who was raped and murdered 9 months prior, the audience finds itself laughing and enjoying themselves. It sounds dissonant, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Darkness isn’t only just dark, and the humour itself becomes a breath of fresh air, but also a way to see the pain lurking underneath from a different angle.
That said, the tone of Three Billboards is like a game of darts. Not every one hits the board. And there are real moments of what I can only describe as ‘wonky-ness’ in its script and its performances. Characters deliver completely unrelated monologues to deliver a point with the subtlety of a shotgun spread, the most particular egregious example of this is when Mildred is laying into the well-meaning but hypocritical priest of the town (Nick Searcy). The writing screams at us, delivering its one-two punches of attention in a pretty obnoxious way. It’s bad because it shows off quite simply. McDonagh’s a human, and while the through line of Three Billboards is intense and powerful, it’s side areas show chinks in the armour. There are moments of levity that don’t feel comfortable not because of intentional dissonance, but because McDonagh seems to not be handling the issue with the required weight it needs (see: racial violence and its “humorous” implications). It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just that some of the humour seems incredibly low-hanging fruit and as a result comes off as unthinking.
There’s no point dragging McDonagh across the coals for this, in my honest opinion. The film’s very attempt at bringing the racial backdrop of American society into the filmic landscape in a more honest way, in the fact that most people aren’t even aware of its nuances, is doing justice to the reality of the world. It’s not an idealised version of the world, where good guys win and bad guys lose. Three Billboards real strength is setting up a seemingly morally easy conflict, of the avenging badass mother and the inefficient dunkin’ donuts cops, and goes through its regular beats before quickly evolving into something much more “real”. Mildred’s declaration of war brings real consequences to the characters of the town, not just in terms of physical pain and scarring, but emotional and psychological wounds as well. An eye for an eye never looked so bloody, or so sad. The desire of revenge only brings about more violence, anger “begets” (you’ll know) greater anger.
The film has a beautifully human track running through it. At its best, it forces its audience to consider the complexities of humans, how monsters are really people, how heroes are really people, and how time can change both of those titles into little more than hollow words. An audience loves to play judge, but its hard to play judge when everyone’s hands are bloody. The violence may be embedded with a line of humour, but it’s also awful and lasting. Characters may talk sharp, but sooner or later every one of them cracks visibly onscreen. It’s the equivalent of medical treatment in the field, medics pulling bullets out of you while your allies hold you down and you scream through the pain. Healing can sometimes be painful too.
I think Three Billboards is a very good, sometimes even great film. It’s cinematography is often functional, though moments of subtle framing work very well, while its musical motifs and art design are interesting without being distracting. It’s filmic elements have had to take a backseat for its main star though, the story. It’s humanistic brutal beauty is what carries it, even if it stumbles like a wounded soldier at times. Ultimately the film’s greatest weapon, the one which gets you to think and feel beyond your immediate assumptions, is the one you least expect:
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