Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Amanda Warren, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Samara Weaving
Seen on: 5.2.2018

Mildred (Frances McDormand) has had enough. Her daughter was murdered and the police don’t even seem to try to solve it. So she posts three huge billboards that call attention to the fact. The billboards don’t fan the investigation so much as the emotions of the locals. They do make the life of police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) more difficult, especially since his hotheaded deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes it personally.

Three Billboards tells its story very well. Unfortunately it just tells the completely wrong story, managing to perpetuate the racism it tries to stand against by centering the white perspective.

I often see films pretty early – in cinemas, on festivals – so at times, I will see films before a backlash hits. At times that means that I can see movies without having too great expectations of them, which usually works to my and their advantage. At times it means that valid criticism can pass me by, being caught up in the first wave of excitement about something. With Three Billboards, I got to the backlash with its criticism of the film’s racism before I got to the film, but honestly it’s so blatantly racist that I don’t know how you could watch it at all without seeing it – and I’m white.

Be that as it may, whatever the intention may have been, it’s an indictment of the obviously prevailing whiteness of the film industry that Three Billboards was made. That there was nobody who pulled McDonagh aside and said, “Dude, are you sure that a) you as a white guy should make a film about racist police in the first place and b) are you sure that you want to make this film about the racist white cop and sympathize with him and c) are you sure that you really want no POC of color of consequence in the narrative?” That McDonagh didn’t ask these questions himself is bad enough, but that many people could work on this film apparently without asking them is mind-boggling. But that’s what happened. And it’s not even surprising.

The film waits with bated breath until it can finally forget that Dixon is a racist and show that he is a good person underneath it all. It’s a climax that 95% of Willoughby’s lines with his insistence that Dixon would be a good cop if only he could control himself a little more has been working towards and I’m still wondering what it is that makes Dixon a good cop at all – he is racist, sexist, misanthropic, has a drinking problem, a temper problem, a violence problem and he doesn’t seem to be particularly smart. What the fuck do you think a cop should be like if a person with that list of issues is “actually a good cop” in a spot of bother?

But the racism isn’t the film’s only problem. McDonagh has two young women in his script who are both joke material for being stupid, which is the same sexist trope twice in one film (at least Samara Weaving’s has a personality apart from being stupid and Weaving plays her very well, letting her transcend the trope and turn into an absolute highlight). And the way the film treats James (Peter Dinklage) didn’t sit right with me, either – it doesn’t show so much that James is confronted with ableism, but reproduces said ableism as well.

Since McDonagh is a good filmmaker with a great cast at his disposal, the mess he delivers is at least well-acted and has mostly great and funny dialogues (the scene in the interrogation room with the copious use of the n-word is an exercise in ambivalence though). But that doesn’t make the film any less of a mess.

Summarizing: Skip it. Really

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