How Does One Achieve Atonement? Not Like This

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Rating: R
Runtime: 1 hr 55 mins

Minor spoilers, per usual.

 

This is a big egg to crack.

I want to talk in full about all the Academy Award Nominations, but I have yet to see so many of them that I know my opinions would be incomplete. Of the Best Picture Nominees, I have seen Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards, and Get Out, and Call Me by Your Name.

Interest-based, I was indifferent on The Post and Darkest Hour. I’m interested in Phantom Thread because I want to see more of P. T. Anderson’s films (so far Boogie Nights is the only one I’ve watched and whoa.) and Dunkirk I would see for no reason other than the visual splendor.

Yet to come still are Mudbound, I, Tonya, Molly’s Game, A Fantastic Woman, and Coco, and I’m still probably missing some. (Also, regarding animation, I cannot begin to say how pissed I am that either the Lego Batman Movie or A Silent Voice didn’t get nominated, and instead Boss Baby was. Unbelievable.)

I have seen all five films nominated for Best Original Screenplay (The Big Sick, Lady Bird, Three Billboards, The Shape of Water, and Get Out). And since I have seen all of these, I’ll give my unbridled hot take: either Get Out or Lady Bird should win.

Also, Three Billboards is the worst-written movie on that list.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about a woman named Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, whose daughter was kidnapped, raped, and brutally murdered outside of their small town. After seven months of arrested development, Mildred pays for three billboards on a country road to read, “RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS? / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

The police, a largely white-masculine crowd, become incensed and humiliated, and try to get Mildred to take the billboards down. Mildred causes further chaos around town to try and keep her daughter’s case in the public eye so that she can finally get justice.

There is, for a large portion of the movie, a lot to like. Woody Harrelson’s character, the chief of police, was consistently likeable, and the interrogation scene between him and Mildred iss one of the best parts of the movie, just because of how surprising it was. The dialogue is funny in a shitty kind of way. Martin McDonagh is known for his black comedies, so when the script gets in that groove, it is funny, but not in a really fun kind of way. It’s ironic, and bitterly too, when the jokes are a racist or homophobe being racist or homophobic but while tottering around drunk. Were what Sam Rockwell’s character says about gay people at the bar framed differently, it would be threatening and he would be evil, but because he’s drunk, it’s funny.

That’s one of my biggest gripes with this film (and I’m definitely not alone on this). I won’t say too much about the performances, other than Frances McDormand had no choice but to be one-note, and that Sam Rockwell did…fine. But his character, a racist, homophobic, white trash cop, who is known for torturing a black man and facing no consequences for it, gets a pseudo-redemption arc that is so stupidly written that this movie should not win best screenplay.

Sam Rockwell’s character, Jason Dixon, as the police chief’s second-in-command is a racist homophobe. The conceit of a secondary character being racist or homophobic and then learning to be less-so is fine for a subplot. It was handled well enough in Hidden Figures. But Jason Dixon’s arc is framed as a Death/Rebirth, almost Hero’s Journey sort of thing, which, now that I think about it, is unbalanced writing considering how little development Mildred gets in the movie. But his arc has a moment of “spiritual death” where he is at his lowest point, then a “spiritual rebirth” where he tries to amend his ways.

Jason’s moment of Death/Rebirth is when he gets charred by Molotov cocktails that blow up the police station, and he goes to the hospital, apologizes to one guy for kicking his shit throwing him out a window. And then he’s sad, and he wants to become a better person, and then he helps with the case, and then we, the audience, are supposed to say, “Ah yes. He is good now. Just like that.”

But he didn’t earn it, and it feels like a waste of time. Frances McDormand blowing him up isn’t a bitch slap from God telling him to stop being racist. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s dumb, that doesn’t work, it’s a poorly-written subplot. His arc isn’t compelling because the movie tries to solve his character faults—anger management, slovenliness, and racially-charged violence—through something completely narratively unrelated.

The ending of this movie is bleak, which one would expect. Mildred’s daughter stays dead whether they find her killer or not. But there were so many aspects of this movie that left me wanting more. I wanted more for her son, who continually suffered. I wanted more for Peter Dinklage’s character who, because of his dwarfism, faces consistent humiliation at the hands of “sympathetic” characters. I wanted more out of the score, which was somehow Oscar-nominated but come on let’s be real people The Last Jedi has the best score since Empire.

It’s a frustrating movie, and an issue of parts versus whole. The scene where Mildred talks to a deer is lovely. The part where Mildred kicks some high school kids in the groin is funny. The scenery (when they deign to show it) is spectacular. But that doesn’t make up for shoddy writing, and black comedic, problematic dialogue doesn’t make up for bad writing.

So, no, it doesn’t deserve the award for Best Original Screenplay. Or Best Picture. But I’m sure it’ll be online soon enough, if you’re still interested.

 

Rating: 6.5/10

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