From the second that the trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri dropped some nine long months ago, it had been a film that was right at the top of my most anticipated list. From the cast to the premise to the off kilter sensibility, I was absolutely certain that Three Billboards was going to crash land on the top of my best of 2018 list and stay there for the duration of the year. This unbelievable hype, admittedly self created but backed up during awards season with multiple nominations across different academies and awarding bodies, had me positively bursting with excitement to finally get in to the theatre to finally see for myself.
It’s a really peculiar feeling, then, to find myself in place where I have some really complicated thoughts about the film. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a jet black comedy that tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a mother, hardened and grief stricken after the murder of her daughter, who shakes up her small town when she rents three billboards to display a statement of exasperation about the fact that the local police department have yet to make a single arrest months after the crime. Referring back to the trailer, that eye catching three minute clip included everything that I loved about the film, whilst rather consciously sidestepping the one glaring element of the narrative that I hated.
Let’s start with the positives, because there are many of them. Three Billboards is a darkly comic film that contains some of the sharpest, most humorously abrasive dialogue that I have heard in a long time. The tone of the picture in relation to its deadly serious subject matter is something that makes it an irresistibly fun yet sobering watch, a combination that makes for excellent cinema. Think along the lines of Blue Ruin and I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore and you can start to get a feel of the fast paced, irreverent yet sombre vibe. This is a vibe that I particularly enjoy, so as far as premise, performances, humour and dialogue go, Three Billboards hits it out of the park for me.
I try to be as spoiler free in these reviews as possible, but it is impossible for me to discuss my reservations about the film without divulging certain character traits and details, so if you have yet to see Three Billboards, look away now! In short, I loved Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. Loved her plot journey, her performance, her attitude, her dialogue. Everything. My problem comes in the form of Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a villainous character who enjoys something of a redemption arc through the narrative. Here’s the thing, the second you try to make me supportive of a character who known to be a violent, power abusing racist, I’m not on board. Dixon could have been a drunken fool, terrible at his job, there were other places to start from to build a redemption arc. Three Billboards is a film that revels in its lack of nuance to enhance its dark comic effect. Characters act on impulse, in grief, on instinct and it makes for some hilariously uncomfortable set pieces and confrontations. That’s the positive side of it. The negative side, however, it that there simply wasn’t enough time or nuance in the film to justify giving Dixon’s character some very particular racist origins, origins that are only ever flippantly alluded to and involve, in the film’s own words, ‘torture’ of a black man whilst in custody.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the film very, very much in spite of my unease with the redemption of Dixon. It was vulgar for vulgar’s sake in a joyous way, but arguably racist for racist’s sake in an ill-judged way. Sometimes you just have to accept the fact that a film you had a good time with can contain a problematic angle, and this is certainly one of the biggest cases I have experienced in recent times.
As I said above, Frances McDormand is a real force to be reckoned with as mourning, motivated mother Mildred Hayes. There is absolutely nothing glamorous about the role, and McDormand seemingly revels in getting down and dirty with her character. There is a beauty and art to her vulgarity, and there is also a beauty and art to the way in which McDormand can switch from comedy to serious drama in the blink of an eye. In my opinion, the film lives and dies in the actresses enigmatic performance, although interestingly, the friend with whom I watched the film was not overly struck, and failed to understand the Best Actress award hype.
Woody Harrelson plays an important but briefer than expected part as town Sheriff Willoughby, a man juggling seventeen different priorities and problems, but clearly someone who has his heart in the right place. I wish, in fact, that more of the plot could have been afforded to Harrelson rather than Sam Rockwell as the aforementioned problematic Officer Dixon. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Rockwell’s execution of the character, his performance is exactly how it should be. The number of awards he has picked up for the role are testament to his talent, I just wish his character wasn’t plagued with that one standout issue.
The film’s universe is padded out with a whole host of quirky and enjoyable characters played by the likes of Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones and Zeljko Ivanek, all of whom give high quality performances and help to add extra delight and dark humour to proceedings.
Overall, I think I’m mostly confuddled because I absolutely expected Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri to be a ten out ten knock out, but in reflection it’s more like an eight. There is no doubt that Frances McDormand will be amongst the frontrunners at the Oscars, and she absolutely deserves to be, every aspect of the film that is centred around her character and her journey is fantastic. As much as I absolutely love 75% of this film, I can’t quite make peace with the nagging feeling of the problematic issues I have discussed. Maybe I’m too caught up in my own thoughts, maybe it’s an issue I am too sensitive to, maybe I should just chill out and enjoy the glorious, uncomfortable, vulgarity of the bigger picture. Maybe. But probably not.