In any other year, Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri would be considered an acclaimed indie with little shot at awards success. Playwright Martin McDonagh’s film is an exercise in pitch-black comedy, a film that tests the limits of what audiences will laugh at. Its macabre sense of humor isn’t something that usually clicks with a wide audience, but thanks to the film’s high profile during awards season, this is getting more eyeballs than expected.
The film certainly deserves the attention for its performances. Frances McDormand is perfect as Mildred, a divorced mother who decides to bring attention to her daughter’s seven-month-old rape and murder by buying three billboards. Woody Harrelson plays the beloved Ebbing sheriff, while Sam Rockwell stars as the hapless officer Dixon.
Three Billboards has sparked plenty of backlash since winning the Golden Globe for Best Drama, which seemingly makes it the frontrunner for the 2017 Best Picture Oscar. Vulture.com has a good run-down of the reasons for this and many of these complaints make sense.
The biggest issue for me is that it just feels like it wasn’t directed by an American. McDonagh came up with a great plot, but he needed either an American co-writer or an American director to really understand the atmosphere of small-town America. He tries to hit on a variety of hot topics in America – racism, religious hypocrisy, local corruption, police brutality, etc. – at the expense focusing the plot on a central character.
This whole film should be told through Mildred’s eyes, with her in almost every scene. But McDonagh doesn’t do this. We veer off into the personal life of Harrison’s Sheriff Willoughby, which comes to a dramatic, plot-shaking conclusion. Dixon’s attempt at redemption dominates the film’s third act. McDonagh even tries to touch on the sheriff department’s relationship with Ebbings’ black population, but he only succeeds in making the black characters one-dimensional set dressing.
So instead of a powerful story about one mother’s fight for justice for her murdered daughter, Three Billboards becomes a decentralized portrait of a tortured town. The performances in this film are great, and McDormand certainly deserves an Oscar for giving her all in it. But McDonagh’s script and his drab directing make it an imperfect film.
Photo: Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox