Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I’m writing this on Saturday, March 3, the day before the Academy Awards, so I don’t know yet if Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will win the Best Picture Oscar. Because of the way Academy voters vote on the Best Picture nominees (they use instant-runoff voting — FiveThirtyEight.com has a good explanation), the award will go to the film preferred by the broadest swath of Academy voters. I hear that a number of people think Three Billboards is socially relevant and thus deserving. I can’t say I agree.

Since its release, the film has gone from being the darling of the festival circuit, to the winner of a number of pre-Oscars awards, to the target of a backlash. I had high hopes when I went to see it, because I really admire Frances McDormand’s work, but the movie is deeply flawed.

McDormand, it must be said, does a fearless job; she is a force of nature. Her character, Mildred Hayes, has bought three billboards outside the small fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri, in an attempt to shame the police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), into solving her daughter’s brutal rape and murder seven months earlier. Sam Rockwell plays a racist cop under Willoughby’s command. Mayhem ensues.

I won’t detail much more of the plot than that, as I don’t want to reveal any spoilers for those who haven’t seen it and plan to. But I can state my general objections:

— The fundamental problem is that, as Wesley Morris put it so well in the New York Times, “Ebbing is as real a place as Narnia.” The screenwriter and director, Martin McDonagh, is an Irish playwright who has turned to filmmaking in recent years (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths). Evidently some actual police-shaming billboards he saw some years ago while traveling through the American South were the inspiration for his film. But he either doesn’t really know the American South, or he’s not interested in creating a real depiction of it. The few African-American characters are thinly-drawn stereotypes, and the moral redemption of Rockwell’s racist cop is implausible and unearned.

— In both his plays and his films, McDonagh loves to employ pitch-black comedy, violence, and profanity. Of these three, I find the profanity is the hardest to stomach. It’s hard to believe that there are people who curse virtually non-stop — even when speaking to their young daughters. The overuse of vulgarity seems intended to shock, a juvenile impulse, and the overall effect is that of someone repeatedly giving your face a light slap.

— In her courage, single-mindedness, and utter indifference to what anyone thinks of her, McDormand’s Mildred makes a fine feminist icon. Unfortunately, by resorting to two instances of that perennial Hollywood favorite, the older man-younger woman relationship, McDonagh undermines whatever message about female rage and empowerment the film might be trying to convey. Woody Harrelson is 56; his character’s wife is played by Abbie Cornish, a fetching Australian actress of 35. The huge age gap is never explained (and neither are we told how an Australian wound up married to a police chief in the middle of nowhere, Missouri). The second relationship features Mildred’s ex-husband, the craggy-looking and abusive Charlie (an underused John Hawkes). Hawkes is 58, and Penelope, the lovely but dim young woman he’s left Mildred for, is played by Samara Weaving (also an Australian, but she uses an American accent here), who is 26, but her character is supposed to be 19. The fact that we’re supposed to accept these totally implausible pairings is irritating in the extreme, and a distraction from the story.

— Peter Dinklage plays James, a friend of Mildred’s, and the film pokes fun at his character, continually referring to him as “the midget.” Poor Dinklage is wasted in a thankless role that seems to exist merely to provide an opportunity for McDonagh to revel in rebelling against political correctness.

— One last gripe: what is up with Mildred’s ugly coveralls that she wears for nearly the entire film? Did the costume designer have it in for Frances McDormand? They’re unflattering and unfashionable, so why she wears them is absolutely mystifying.

For a smart and more complete summation of the issues with Three Billboards, I invite you to read Wesley Morris’ cogent piece in The New York Times. As for the Academy Awards: Frances McDormand is completely entitled to the Best Actress Oscar, if she wins it. But her film, if it wins for Best Picture, will be stealing an award that should have gone to one of the other contenders.

Charlie: Like Penelope said, all this anger, man, it just begets greater anger.

James: Penelope said “begets”?

— Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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