Film review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (4/5)
With Hollywood a cauldron of moral outrage and indignation, this tale of an angry mother’s search for her daughter’s rapist and killer is already dividing opinion ahead of this year’s Academy Awards.
Three Billboards is nominated for seven Oscars but is generating as much attention – not least on Twitter – for its light-hearted treatment of racism.
Such criticism seems to miss the point of this tragi-comedy which exposes bigotry in all its forms. It even points a finger at the ‘gang-like’ clergy who make a bit-part attempt to challenge the decision by central character Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) to pay for controversial advertising asking why the police have made no arrests.
Provoked into reopening the case, the chief of police William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) also faces a personal crisis which plays a part in defining the racist and thuggish cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and his apparent redemption.
Critics have pounced on Dixon’s comedic comments about the torturing of ‘persons-of-colour’ as evidence of insensitivity towards race by director Martin McDonagh. Not so; he allows the audience to recognise Dixon’s stupidity and disregard for the community’s black citizens and who gets his just deserts in two violent attacks.
Ultimately, Willoughby’s death also reveals a vulnerable side to Dixon, who talks tough but still lives with his mom and hides a personal secret. More questionable is his befriending of his nemesis Hayes who also tries to kill him. From being the film’s villain of the piece he undergoes a Scrooge-like conversion to likeable rogue.
While critics focus on Rockwell’s transition, the fire-bombing of the police station by Hayes is an improbable and too easily sidestepped incident.
These quibbles aside, Three Billboards takes us through the full gamut of human emotions, from frustration and anger with the justice system to tensions at home, a broken marriage and brutal revenge.
McDonagh is not afraid to tackle other touchy topics, even deriving comedy lines at the expense of town dwarf James (Peter Dinklage), while liberally sprinkling the dialogue with expletives, including the c-word. This may be set in tough-talking redneck country, but the foul language and crude conversation becomes monotonously excessive. Film Noir gave us plenty of powerful movies without it and Three Billboards would have benefited from a good edit.
Nonetheless, it has picked up a number of awards and looks like going head to head with The Shape of Water in a number of Oscar categories, including Best Actress for McDormand and Best Supporting Actor for Rockwell. If it came down to a choice between them, Rockwell should get the vote. His is a more complex and compelling character.
Some note that McDonagh has not been nominated as best director, suggesting the sensitivities over race in particular may sway the judges at a time of moral panic.
Even so it will be a shock if Three Billboards is left empty-handed, though it is a film that can best be described as bleak and challenging, rather than enjoyable.