With less than a month to go until the Academy Awards, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri appears to be the favorite to win “Best Picture” and several other categories.
That’s surprising, because it’s not that great a movie.
I watched Three Billboards on Saturday, filled with hope and anticipation from the glowing reviews I had read about the film. I don’t make it out to very many “adult” movies these days, so I’m selective in what I go see. Three Billboards, buoyed by all those Golden Globes and plaudits from film festivals, had been on my “to-watch” list for a while.
Sorry to say, I left the local multiplex disappointed and a little confused on Saturday night. What was it I had just witnessed? Was this story about a grieving mother’s battle with the local authorities a comedy or a drama? What was this movie trying to say, and why was it getting raves from vaunted quarters like The New Yorker and The Atlantic?
After taking some time to think it over, I believe Three Billboards doesn’t deserve the Oscar buzz or the 93% reviewer rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Here are four reasons why (warning—some spoilers ahead):
It is About Everything—and Nothing
Three Billboards touches on a lot of issues—child murder, race relations, cancer, domestic abuse, sexual predators, alcoholism, religion and, I guess, the decline of small town life. That’s an awful lot to cram into a two-hour movie. As a result, Three Billboards only glosses over most of these topics. A cop is accused of torturing an African-American suspect, but it’s only mentioned in passing. A priest is quickly shamed for the Catholic Church’s sex scandals, and never shows his face again. There are a couple of musings about human existence and the afterlife, but nothing deeper than that.
This everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach by screenwriter Martin McDonagh makes it hard to discern what the movie is about. If Three Billboards is supposed to be such an important film, as many have claimed, what message is the viewer supposed to walk away with, other than life is chaotic and often tragic?
The Hero is Completely Unlikable
It should be easy to empathize with Frances McDormand’s character, Mildred Hayes. She’s a hard-working single mom who’s suffered an unspeakable tragedy with the murder of her daughter. The problem is, Mildred is so angry, so confrontational and so crass, she inspires more fear than sympathy. She’s not just mean because of her child’s death, either—a flashback reveals that Mildred was just as thorny and abrasive before the murder happened.
Despite her take-no-prisoners approach, Mildred is also weak. She cowers during a scary encounter with a predator who may have been her daughter’s killer. She doesn’t even report the incident to the police. In fact, Mildred does nothing throughout the entire film to help solve the crime. Ebbing is a small town—wouldn’t Mildred have some theories about the killer’s identity? Rather than spend all her money on those three billboards, why not hire a private sleuth to investigate the case? Instead, Mildred takes the approach that will draw the most attention to Mildred. That makes her a colorful character, and provides a clever premise, but it doesn’t make Mildred the least bit relatable.
There is No Sense of Place
As one New York Times writer put it, Ebbing, Missouri is every bit as fictional as Narnia. It’s an Ozarks town with the buildings and landscape of western North Carolina (where the film was shot). The police force works in an old, storefront station house straight from The Andy Griffith Show. Police Chief Willoughby and his cohorts strut menacingly around downtown like Hitler’s stormtroopers, and everyone in Ebbing cusses like the sales team on Glengarry Glen Ross.
As someone who grew up in a city of less than 25,000, I see very little in Ebbing, Missouri that seems like an authentic American town. People in small towns have their problems and their prejudices, but don’t tend to wear them in on their sleeves like the denizens of Ebbing. Most small-town people are not dull-witted yokels, as many of the Ebbing folks are portrayed. Also, a lot of people in small towns attend church and go out of their way to be polite. They don’t swear nonstop like sailors, and they tend to think less of people who do.
The Characters are Often Out-of-Character
Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby is a smart cop, a decent man and the best-drawn character in Three Billboards. For some reason, though, he has placed his faith in Officer Dixon, one of the most bumbling, corrupt lawmen to appear onscreen since The Dukes of Hazzard was canceled.
That’s one example of the inconsistencies almost all the key characters display. Officer Dixon, a relentless bully for 90 minutes, makes an about-face and becomes a hero in the film’s final half-hour. Mildred, so nasty in almost every other scene, presents an old tormentor with a bottle of champagne instead of hitting him over the head with it. Finally, and most absurdly, a local ad man who’s pistol-whipped within an inch of his life shares an orange juice in the hospital with the guy who beat him up.
When Hallmark moments like these pop up from the crude and deeply flawed people of Ebbing, it makes me wonder what kind of film Three Billboards is trying to be. Is it a darkly comic, free-wheeling romp, like some of the best works of Quintin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers? Or does the movie aspire to make an Important Statement about America?
The serious moments of the film, so jarring in their earnestness and sentimentality, make me believe Three Billboards aims for something lofty. That is why, in my opinion, it ultimately fails.