My relationship with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is very similar to an ill-considered, last-call hookup at a dimly lit dive bar. I’ve always caught a grotesquely macho vibe from the advertising for Marin McDonagh pictures that has made me avoid each one no matter how lauded, as I was immediately turned off at first sight. The barrage of negative think pieces picking at McDonagh’s latest film’s mishandling of American race relations made it even more of an unappetizing prospect, something that somewhat validated my initial instinct to avoid it. There’s a kind of desperate, ticking clock effect to Oscar Season, though, an arbitrary deadline that often pressures me into taking chances on movies I’d typically avoid. With the last couple Best Picture nominees I hadn’t yet seen looking like they’d immediately put me to sleep (apologies to diehard fans of Darkest Hour & The Post), the incendiary divisiveness of Three Billboards stated to look a lot more attractive as an Oscars catch-up prospect. Of course, as most desperate last-call hookups go, the experience was exactly the total disaster I expected & should have known better to avoid.
Frances McDormand stars as a grieving mother who lashes out at her local Missouri police force for not thoroughly investigating the rape & murder of her teenage daughter. Much to the frustration of her son (Lucas Hedges), her not-so-secret admirer (Peter Dinklage), the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson), and everyone else in their small, everybody-knows-everybody community, her vengeful rage is largely misplaced & unproductive. The most dangerous sparring partner she finds in her crusade to shame the local police into action (through inflammatory messages advertised on the titular billboards) is a racist, idiot cop with a reputation for “torturing black folks.” Most of Three Billboards’s cultural backlash has focused on this dangerous small-town cop archetype (performed competently enough by so-much-better-than-this Sam Rockwell), whom many critics believe to have been afforded more empathy than deserved, given his violently racist past. Much like with Andrea Arnold’s awkward portrait of American poverty in American Honey, this redemptive arc for an undeserving racist cop is just one symptom of a larger problem the movie suffers: a British outsider estimating an ill-informed view of American race relations. A long-respected playwright, McDonagh attacks this narrative with a tunnel-vision approach that values dialogue & character work over cultural context. To an American audience, it’s absolutely baffling to set a 2010s narrative about a violent, dysfunctional police force near Ferguson, Missouri without directly dealing with lethal, systemic racism in modern American law enforcement. “Black folks” are mentioned by name periodically throughout, but are largely nowhere to be seen, only checking in occasionally to encourage McDormand’s grieving mother with lines like “You go, girl. You go fuck those cops up.” McDonagh gets so caught up in telling a neo-Western revenge story about the meaningless, self-perpetuating nature of violence (a lesson we’ve had explained to us onscreen countless times before) that he doesn’t notice how many thematic cans of worms he’s opening & leaving unattended in the process. The empathetic portrait of the film’s most flagrantly racist cop is just one small part of that cultural-outsider obliviousness.
To be honest, I had soured on Three Billboards’s tone long before its American race politics naivete could fully sink in. Being willfully unfamiliar with McDonagh’s past works, I can’t claim to know if this film is indicative of his usual style, but I found it to be overwritten & under-directed in a consistently frustrating way. It felt like watching libertarian blowhard Bill Maher attempt to bring his Politically Incorrect™ brand of social commentary to the world of live theatre. When I say I’ve always caught a whiff of grotesque machismo from the look of McDonagh’s works, I should probably specify that it’s a pseudo-intellectual machismo – the kind of darkly comedic, overwritten tone that would appeal to Philosophy-major college freshmen who waste countless hours on Reddit & worship at the altar of The Boondock Saints. Indeed, even while featuring a “strong female” lead, Three Billboards feels like a grotesquely macho echo of the worst aspects of the highly-stylized, post-Tarantino dialogue that poisoned indie cinema for much of the 90s. I’m not fully convinced by the argument that Tarantino writes grimy genre throwbacks specifically to create an excuse to use racial epithets, but that exact criticism nagged me throughout Three Billboards. The performative, in-your-face way the film discusses fat people, “retards,” “midgets,” “wife-beaters,” a few more hateful terms I’d rather not repeat, pedophilic priests, rape, cancer, and suicide in a “transgressively” “humorous” tone was, to put it kindly, exhausting & juvenile. Women are lovingly addressed as “bitch” & “cunt” as pet names in a way that feels initially phony, then gratuitous in repetition. It got to the point where even the inciting incident of a teenage girl being “raped while dying” numbed me into not caring about the objectively horrific act’s revenge, since it was written in such a crassly flashy tone. Given Three Billboards’s Oscar nominations for Best Picture & Best Original Screenplay (among others), I suspect many audiences read this “non-PC” demeanor to be bravely truthful about “how things really are” in the American South. I personally found it to be empty, pseudo-intellectual macho posturing, like watching an #edgy stand-up comedian get off on “triggering snowflakes” in a two hour-long routine that supposedly has something revolutionary to say about life & humanity, but is covertly just a reinforcement of the status quo.
The worst movie experiences are always the comedies that fail to make you laugh. I haven’t felt as isolated in a laughing audience watching Three Billboards since I allowed myself to be culturally pressured into watching the similarly #edgy Deadpool. The only comedic bit that got a chuckle out of me was a brief scene where Frances McDormand talks to her house slippers, which feels like a nice glimpse into a much better screenplay. The discomfort of the film’s failed dark humor is only intensified by its demand to be taken (very) seriously. The suddenness of the brutality and the omnipresent somber country music feel like hallmarks of a dead serious drama, but there’s an awkward stage play sheen to the dialogue that doesn’t allow that tonal sobriety to sit right. References to Oscar Wilde and unprompted questions like “Do birds get cancer?” feel entirely foreign to a film that’s supposed to capture the Ugly Truth of the American South. McDormand gets by relatively unscathed in her central role, but the stage play quality of the dialogue forces most actors in the film into awful, flat performances we already know for a fact they’re better than (talented youngsters Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, and Samara Weaving are especially embarrassing here). Sam Rockwell’s teetering between comedic buffoon & explosive threat is a microcosm of the film’s problems balancing #edgy dark humor with overwritten stage play drama, so it makes sense that his character would draw most of the film’s backlash. He’s just one detail indicative of larger, deep-seated issues, though, a mascot for the film’s many ills.
I’m going to tell you an open secret: we’re unpaid, non-professionals here at Swampflix, so we don’t often see moves we have zero interest in. There’s no one to assign them to us with a monetary reward attached, so there’s really no reason for us to seek out movies we know we aren’t going to like (which helps explain why the vast majority of our reviews are rated three stars or higher). Awards season attention & high critical praise (or at least extensive critical conversation) are among the few factors that can lead us outside our comfort zone, which often means our lowest-rated movies are among the most critically lauded titles of any given year. I’m admitting all this to reiterate that I had no business watching Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. The early advertising convinced me I would dislike it, the second-wave critical backlash confirmed that suspicion, and then I allowed its high profile within the Oscars Conversation to convince me to give it a shot anyway. I can’t honestly say it’s one of the worst films of 2017, because I had the non-professional’s freedom to avoid moves I likely would have found to be worse. I can only report that it was one of my least favorite screenings of a high-profile movie from last year and I owe that experience to last minute desperation, FOMO, and The Academy.