By now there’s a good chance you’ve come across a large amount of media coverage for the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film got showered in awards at the Golden Globes and the SAG awards, and has been nominated for a sack full of Oscars.
I managed to see it before any of this hype, after I stumbled on the trailer. From the trailer I saw, it looked like a Coen Brothers film. Something with dark humour, a strong sense of irreverence and a kind of eccentric sense of whimsy. And to be honest, for the first act of the film it genuinely does feel like that’s what director Martin McDonagh is going for. Even the casting of Frances McDormand felt like an attempt to recreate their tone.
But let’s be clear, it is not a Coen Brothers film. Not even close.
The whole plot of the film centres around the mother of a girl who was raped and murdered, and her outrage that the police are doing nothing to help find the guy who did it. It’s a refreshing departure from the tragedy porn we’re used to seeing, as we aren’t ever shown the rape. There’s no gratuitous flashbacks to help us “appreciate” how horrible the crime is. On the surface it could be argued that the film is about the impact that rape and murder can have on the lives of those left behind. It could be argued that it’s an examination of the difficulty surrounding rape prosecutions. What detracts from these arguments, however, is that the film treats its female characters horribly.
Despite Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell both being nominated for “Best Supporting Actor” roles, essentially they’re playing one lead role split over two halves of the film. Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby, the one addressed in the eponymous billboards. Initially it seems like we’re going to be set up to hate him, he is after all the one who has failed to find a culprit for the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter. However as the film progresses he’s humanised and his reasons for failure become understandable. He explains to Mildred that there was no DNA evidence and no trail to follow. Mildred responds unreasonably, and we’re encouraged to empathise with Willoughby. See what he’s dealing with here? An irrational woman. A woman who cannot be reasoned with. Oh, and he has cancer…and a young family. So, y’know, feel bad about that.
Interestingly though, Harrelson’s wife Anne is played by Abbie Cornish. Cornish is 35. Harrelson is 56. This is never mentioned, acknowledged or addressed. By contrast, Mildred’s ex husband Charlie (played by John Hawkes) is dating Penelope, a woman significantly younger than him. This age difference seems to exist solely to be the punchline of jokes to break tension. Every time that she’s on screen, Penelope seems to be required to say something incredibly stupid and reiterate that her only value is her looks. She serves no purpose to the plot, except to make us hate Charlie even more. It’s not enough that he’s abusive and violent towards Mildred (but never Penelope), or that he commits the heinous crime of burning Mildred’s billboards down – no, we also have to know that he’s the kind of shallow prick that dates a much younger woman purely for her looks. Which left me wondering, were we meant to think that Anne and Chief Willoughby were the same age? Anne and Penelope are both relatively expendable characters. Removing them doesn’t alter the plot drastically at all. The same can’t be said for Willoughby and later, Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon.
We’re meant to hate Dixon. He’s an abusive alcoholic who lives alone with his mother. He’s incompetent at his job, and lacks social graces. He also openly admits to torturing a black man who was in police custody, drops the n-word regularly, verbally abuses a dwarf, beats the living shit out of a queer man, and refuses to work on solving the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter. On paper, that’s a character that surely couldn’t have a redemption arc…right?
No. Despite the director’s protestations to the contrary, we are shown that Dixon is capable of being a better human. After Willoughby’s death, Dixon is nearly burned to death and slowly comes to realise that the people he’s treated so atrociously are actually good humans that didn’t deserve his cruelty. He then voluntarily gets beaten up by someone he suspects of being the rapist, purely so he can get a DNA sample and a possible conviction. He has begun to empathise with Mildred and approaches her with humility to offer her what he’s discovered. We are meant to forgive him. We are meant to see that even racist, bigoted, queer bashing monsters are still human and capable of redemption.
What makes this redemption arc even more frustrating is that, aside from being fired from the police force, he faces no real consequences for his actions. He beat the shit out of a man and threw him from a second story window, in front of the new police chief, but we are to believe that no charges are pressed. There is likewise no justice or retribution for the black man that he tortured off camera, whereas the film concludes with the anticipation of, at least, vigilante justice for Mildred’s daughter.
The thing is, there’s nothing actually wrong with telling that story. Or any of the human elements in Three Billboards. Rape and murder and assault quite frequently go unsolved and unpunished. There are young women who are total bimbos. There are perfectly stable and loving relationships between two people with a 20 year age difference. There are abusive husbands and beaten wives. And people are capable of monstrosity, kindness and redemption. There are a multitude of real life instances where racists have begun working with the civil rights movement, or Men’s Rights Activists have marched in support of women’s rights. It is plausible and possible.
But when you mix it all together you end up with a film that treats women like objects, and people of colour, dwarves and queer people like they exist solely for violence and abuse, and then tells you that the two straight white men in the film who seem to be pretty shit are actually worthy of your love and affection…it’s hard not to feel like the whole thing is a set up to “See, straight white men; not as bad as you think!” What could have been an insightful look into the reality surrounding the treatment of rape cases by the police, and the difficulty of administering justice to perpetrators instead becomes a secondary plot line to fuel our empathy for a racist, homophobic, violent man and the man who had supported him.
Even with all of this aside, it’s honestly a rambling and occasionally dull affair with comedy that relies on punching down. It’s overly long and takes far too long to reach a conclusion that feels underwhelming after the amount of time you’ve invested. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s probably not worth the ticket price at the cinema.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is in cinemas now.