** out of ****
(for violence, strong language throughout, and some sexual references)
Released: November 10, 2017 limited; expands through December
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Zeljko Ivanek, Abbie Cornish, Sandy Martin
Welcome to Hollywood’s version of Trump’s America.
The rural Midwest in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri plays like the result of research done exclusively at coastal cocktail parties. The script compiles the best, most venomous quips about those rubes from flyover country, then constructs a heroine that embodies all of the bitter, violent impulses those elites would, if given the chance free of consequence, love to inflict upon Trump voters.
Three Billboards isn’t a movie. It’s a premise with caricatures, ones that exist primarily as targets and proxies for vicarious liberal venting.
The local cops – a batch of white alcoholic short-tempered racists – haven’t solved a seven-month old case of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered. The victim’s mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), is fed up with the cavalier disregard, so she rents space on three sequential billboards on the outskirts of town to publically call out Sheriff William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
It does the trick, causing controversy and a media storm, but the conservative (a.k.a. backwoods) yokels are on the side of Willoughby and his dufus officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Even the local priest panders and enables. It’s a town full of deplorables who likely cling to their guns and Bibles.
This keeps the angry, hostile Mildred as an underdog against an entrenched misogynist patriarchy. The screenplay provides her with plenty of opportunities to tell them off, in perfectly scripted fashion, with the kind of verbal takedowns that Julia Roberts patently chews up and spits out. When that’s not enough, Mildred strikes out violently – or worse. Even a hick high schooler isn’t safe from a sucker kick to the crotch.
What little support Mildred does get ends up being too progressively perfect, from a Latino financial benefactor to an out-of-town African-American cop brought in to straighten things up. This isn’t a compelling example of diverse casting; it’s agenda driven spite via identity politick comeuppance.
Attempts are made to humanize Willoughby and Dixon, but for the sheriff it’s a cheap device, not a complex characterization, and for Dixon it strains credulity. These are just a few of the forced contrivances in this ridiculously false melodrama.
The premise is potent enough on its own terms; it shouldn’t require such cynical excess. But instead of settling in after a provocative setup, Three Billboards just gets more preposterous as it goes.
Director Martin McDonagh hails from London, a filmmaker known for dark crime-based comedies like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Small town America is clearly foreign to him as he stacks it high with redneck clichés. While not specifically political, Three Billboards works as a parable for our nation’s culture wars but told strictly by one side of the conflict, with derisive, dismissive condescension.
It’s no surprise McDonagh pursued McDormand for the lead. He clearly wants his film to feel like one made by her husband and brother-in-law Joel and Ethan Coen, but McDonagh approaches his material from a simplistic posture. The Coens examine human sin with humility, even soberity. McDonagh, on the other hand, mocks it with pride.
He even hires longtime Coens composer Carter Burwell to make the tone as Coen-esque as possible but, along with the superb images framed in Ben Davis‘s cinematography (superior to most of his Marvel franchise work), McDonagh’s aesthetic feels borrowed, not inspired.
Three Billboards isn’t challenging or nuanced filmmaking, but it thinks it is. That lack of self-awareness makes the whole endeavor increasingly obnoxious. Key turns and plot progressions rely entirely on convenient coincidence or unearned shifts. The more leeway I tried to give it, the more insulted I felt.
What’s particularly unfortunate is that McDormand’s character is so perfectly timed for this cultural moment of Male Pig whistleblowing. I just couldn’t buy this specific movie that provided it.
There’s an interesting story to be told here. A worthy one. A relevant one. But with broad, flat characters and a SJW chip on its shoulder, it’s not this one.