First things first, I like this film. Just want to say that so it’s clear. ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is a good film. It has an emotional narrative, it deals with important current issues, the acting is top draw and the camerawork is lovely for a film devoid of any huge set-pieces. But, I do think it’s been over-hyped. It should not win Best Picture, for two reasons. Firstly, ‘Get Out’, ‘Lady Bird’ and possibly ‘Dunkirk’ are just better films, plain and simple. I’ll get into the second reason later, but it just is not the best film of the year. My family saw this film and they all said it was one of the best films they’d ever seen, and I was quickly interrogated when I expressed my disagreement that although it was good, it is not even the best of the year, let alone one of the best ever. There is a lot of good about it for sure, but people seem to be treating it as a shoo-in for Best Picture at the Oscars, and I don’t think it should be.
Let’s start with what is obviously excellent about ‘Three Billboards’ and that’s the acting. The title of this article should tell you what I think about the acting, because it’s so good. Frances McDormand will probably win the Oscar for Best Actress, and although I think Saorise Ronan just edges her out, I have no problem with McDormand taking the award: it will be well deserved. Mildred is fierce, persistent, and not a very nice person, but McDormand brings some intensely emotional and heartbreaking scenes to this film. I thought it was interesting that McDormand’s (a frequent collaborator with the Coen brothers) character bears some resemblance to Sheriff Bell from the Coen Brothers’ ‘No Country for Old Men’. It’d be interesting to know if that similarity was deliberate. So this brings me to one of my issues with why ‘Three Billboards’ is slightly overrated. I’m not taking anything away from McDormand’s performance, because she is fantastic, but surely playing the role of a grieving mother whose daughter has been raped and murdered, with an abusive ex-husband, is not the most difficult role to play, which is why I personally prefer Ronan’s performance in ‘Lady Bird’. It’s the subtlety that wins for me; the role of Mildred is loud, in your face and still amazing, but in my opinion I’d always take a subtle performance over a loud one. In my opinion, Woody Harrelson is the real star of the show here. His role as Sheriff Willoughby (target of Mildred’s billboards) is one of my favourite supporting performances of recent years. Sam Rockwell seems to be the one receiving all the awards, but Harrelson should not go unnoticed. He rules every scene that he’s in and is probably the only character who actually made me laugh. There’s a lot of chopping and changing of tone in this film, which I kinda like and kinda don’t, but Harrelson did a rare thing in film which is make you laugh and really break your heart in the space of a few minutes. He isn’t on screen very long, but his final scene is just harrowing, and makes this movie worth watching by itself. The supporting cast are all solid too, Lucas Hedges is back in another Oscar calibre film, and he’s great but underused, Peter Dinklage is also underused but obviously great, and Caleb Landry Jones is surprisingly excellent. It was also hilarious to me to see Sandy Martin play Dixon’s mother (a character who feels suspiciously derivative of a certain Mrs Bates…), having seen her play Mac’s mum in ‘It’s Always Sunny’.
The camerawork in ‘Three Billboards’ is also unexpectedly lovely. The shots of Willoughby and his family by the lake, and the beautiful long take assault of Red Welby are the standout moments, but this is a really pretty film. So I know what you’re thinking, if I loved the acting so much and I liked the camerawork, what are my issues with it? Firstly it’s the humour. The film is being talked about as a black comedy, and there are definitely funny parts, and McDonagh is very skilled in the way he takes the film from despair to humour in seconds. But I just think lots of parts aren’t that funny; swearing isn’t a substitute for humour, and I think this film for many parts seems to think that calling someone a “cunt” is a replacement for actual wit. It isn’t. But really, that’s not an issue. It’s still a funny film, just nowhere near as funny as people seem to think.
My main issue is, like many others, how the issue of race is dealt with. For a film so actively bringing race to the forefront, it’s rare to see the issue dealt with so poorly. Shots of the billboards up in flames resembling the KKK burning crosses were great, and it’s a shame that McDonagh really didn’t deal with racism as well as this for the rest of the film. It’s Rockwell’s character that really gets to me, which is annoying because Rockwell himself is fantastic and his acting should not be discredited because of the character. Now, before people say that I’m missing the point of the film, I’m not. I understand it completely, I just think it’s awful. I get that all the characters are meant to be bad people, and there’s the whole thing of rage incites more rage. I get that forgiveness is a big theme of the film. Trust me, I get all of it. But when a film ends up portraying a racist, crooked, torturing, and just evil cop as the end hero, I’m not on board. Does McDonagh really think the audience is so dumb to forget that 30 minutes of screentime ago, this man was telling his black captain to “mind [his] own fucking business”. Dixon admits to torturing a black man, and yet just because he nearly dies in a fire we’re supposed to forgive him??? Accepting that you’re wrong does not mean that you can be portrayed as a hero at the end. This is all down to your own personal, philosophical outlook, but I just can’t accept the redemption of a racist. Not in a film that thinks itself progressive. I wonder, if we had met the killer and rapist of Mildred’s daughter, and that man had apologised and regretted his actions and maybe done some good, would we ever have forgiven him? Let alone seen him as a hero?? No way, and that’s why I really hope ‘Three Billboards’ does not win Best Picture.
I’ll end by saying what I said at the start. I like this film. I’ve watched it twice and liked it both times. And I really don’t like getting too political about films, and I might be wrong about this one, but I just don’t like the message of “if you apologise and do some good stuff, then we’ll just forget about anything bad you did”. Nope, not having it. Which is a shame, because that really ruined a largely excellent, well put together and superbly acted film. The nihilistic message is strangely poignant, and it is definitely reminiscent of ‘No Country for Old Men’ for me in that sense. I think McDormand and Harrelson would be worthy Oscar winners, and even Rockwell because his acting was superb. But for a film to bring racism to everyone’s attention, and then deliver the message so badly? That’s just a shame.
Best scene: Willoughby’s last scene
Best character: Mildred
Best actor/actress: Woody Harrelson
Best quote: “All this anger, man, it just begets greater anger.” – Charlie