“What’s the law on what ya can and can’t say on a billboard?”
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is yet another victim of the instant gratification world we live in. It opened to critical acclaim, yet just as quickly fell to scathing reviews and judgements about its treatment of race issues and placing a white man’s redemption in the narrative. It happened last year with La La Land. Can’t we just take our time and enjoy things? Maybe give Three Billboards a critical reappraisal in a few years or so? What I saw when I watched Three Billboards was a damned fine film. A film not without its flaws, but a damned fine film nonetheless.
You’ve probably heard about the plot. Yes, the clue is in the title. Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand) rents out the titular three billboards in an effort to provoke the police. Her teenage daughter was raped and murdered an unspecified number of months before the film starts and the police have lost interest in catching the culprit. To paraphrase Hayes, the police are too busy roughing up the black population of Ebbing. These three billboards affect the entire town, but more specifically affect a small bunch of people in radically different ways.
Police Chief Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson) tries to approach the situation calmly, as he’s dealing with sever personal issues. However, racist Officer Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell) takes a more violent approach to the situation, threatened the advertising agency employees. Things escalate, violence levels rise, and there’s a fair amount of swearing as well. What more could you want in a film? Of course, I jest. We’ve seen this kind of film before…but it’s usually a middle aged man resorting to desperate measures to find a voice in the world.
Here, it’s a middle aged woman, and if McDormand doesn’t win the Best Actress Oscar, then she’ll have been robbed of it. This is easily her best performance since Fargo, and one of the most powerful performances by either gender I’ve seen for a good while. If there’s just one reason to watch this film, it is for Frances. From the opening scene, as she’s tearing of a fingernail with her teeth whilst looking at the three billboards, she instantly drags you kicking and screaming into the film. And she never lets go. Whether she’s confronting Chief Willoughby, a dentist or a priest, she takes down male patriarchs with panache (and a lot of swearing). She’s waging a one-woman war and doesn’t care who’s in her way, be it male or female.
“Took a poll, did you Father?”
Of course, she’s not perfect, and neither are any of the characters in Three Billboards. One of the main causes of controversy is Officer Dixon, a man who initially seems to be a caricature of a dumb, racist cop but evolves into something a little more complicated as the film goes on. I won’t spoil anything, but is that really a negative? To give flesh to a caricature? For one, the character would be equally criticized if he were simply a caricature. His narrative does collide with Mildred’s in a distracting fashion, but that’s more a problem of the writing than the actual character.
As the film develops its narrative, threads and side plots expand and multiply, leaving little room for them all to breathe. Yes, Mildred remains the centrepiece, but it tends to wander from its central plot a little too much. For example, Dixon locks up Mildred’s (black) employer. She’s then forgotten about for at least half an hour before turning up randomly, smiling and happy. A lot of the characters outside the main three (Mildred, Willoughby and Dixon) are simply there to exist, to aid the narrative rather than be real characters. This is where criticism should be focused. Even Mildred’s son and ex-husband (and his 19 year old girlfriend) are only there to bolster her narrative and become little more than props.
“All you can do is try”
But that’s my main problem with the film. I’m trying to be critical here, but I really enjoyed Three Billboards. It’s a dark comedy, that’s for sure, but it had me laughing louder than I’ve laughed at the cinema screen for a while (well, apart from the Tube scene in Darkest Hour…but I was laughing in disbelief). The audience is pressed to wonder why they’re laughing. Is it inappropriate laughter? Why are we laughing about Willoughby’s personal issues? The comedy and the spasms of violence make the occasional pause for poignancy all the more poignant.
Three Billboards is not deserving of the critical acclaim or the critical disdain it has received. Yes, it’s a damned fine film. It’s hilarious, savage and powerful. But along the way it struggles to weave all the plot threads it’s dangled up in front of us. Racism is one of the plot threads dropped quickly in favour of Mildred’s narrative. The writing for the characters outside of the main three characters is merely serviceable. The minor characters are treated like props, rather than real people. But, over everything else, Frances McDormand’s performance is worth the admission alone. She drags the film through its flaws to reach something almost sublime. Who needs Wonder Woman when we have Mildred Hayes?
VERDICT: 8/10. Three Billboards is a damned fine film, but a film that loses itself among dangling plot threads and minor characters that may as well be props for all the reality they possess. But Mildred Hayes is the hero we deserve…and need!
What did you think of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)? Leave your thoughts/comments below!
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