Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
(Martin McDonagh, 2017)
This is a hateful film. It's also a poorly plotted film that mines comedy from misogyny and racism like a kid making fart noises with his armpit in the hopes that cheap laughs will disguise the story's many forced turns, but above all else it's hateful.
Ebbing is a fictional town. In case the name symbolism is lost on you, don't worry, a main character will use ebb
as a verb in the film's central monologue. Missouri, on the other hand, is not a fictional state. It's the home of the city of Ferguson. You might have heard about it on the news back in 2014.
At least two token black people live in Ebbing, Missouri. Not a bad word can be said about them. More live off-screen, apparently, and are subject to systemic, violent abuse (also off-screen) by the town's all-white police department, led by that lovable, dopey bartender from Cheers
. These well-meaning, racist policemen are the heroes of our story, the characters who tug at our heartstrings and give us hope for a better tomorrow. Murderous racists are people, too, you see. Just like you and me. And with just one loving word from one white man to another, redemption is at hand. Racism solved. If only those off-screen blacks in Ferguson knew how easy it all was.
A third token black person also appears in Ebbing. He's the Mr. Tibbs of our story. He's got a badass vibe, is cool under pressure, and is not completely indifferent to seeing a (white) citizen brutalized by a cop in an attempted murder. By golly, he even demands that cop's badge — but not so much for moral reasons as because that's what that the story requires of him. Mr. Tibbs doesn't matter to this tale beyond that. White lives matter.
Stylistically, the film is an amalgam of mid-to-late-90s arthouse cinema, with splashes of Fargo
, Lone Star
, The Sweet Hereafter
, and other films of that ilk, though the cinematography makes John Sayles seem like a visually assured director by comparison. I assumed the story was set in that same mid-to-late-90s period, but one character's use of google as a verb, the occasional presence of cell phones, and reference to war in the desert suggests a time closer to 2002-2003. It's all rather inexact, just like the town's layout, which is definitely more the work of a playwright than a city planner.
At one point in the film, Peter Dinklage's character asks with incredulity, "Penelope said begets
?" Audiences are fond of this line, as I suppose they should be. Dinklage delivers it perfectly and the idea of a young woman using a two syllable word made quite famous by the Old Testament is hysterical because young women are notoriously stupid. I mean, right? Maybe we're laughing specifically at Penelope, except I'm fairly certain that Dinklage's character has never met her and knows nothing about her. This kind of writing is indicative of the screenplay as a whole, which ignores logic on its way to get wherever it wants to go. The scene where a mysterious stranger visits Frances McDormand's character at her gift shop is the prime example of this. It's a complete narrative cheat that makes for an embarrassing scene.
McDormand is fine here, by the way; very one-note, but it's an entertaining note. The few deviations — like her "oh, baby" concern for Woody Harrelson's character — act as reminders of how much more interesting she might be with nuance. Harrelson's performance is perfectly satisfactory, though it's not a role that requires him to stretch much at all and, as I mentioned, his likable earnestness is rather odious in context. I can't even began to evaluate Sam Rockwell's contributions here for similar reasons. Caleb Landry Jones is an actor I'll pay more attention to in the future; I'm curious to see what his limits are.
The cast and McDonagh's dialogue are the things that make Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
as watchable and entertaining as it is, but neither is enough to compensate for the film's hatefulness. I probably should have expected this sort of diseased film from the director of In Bruges