Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Okay, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won four Golden Globes, including best picture. It’s up for a few Oscars, too. The acting Globes were well earned. Somehow, it won best screenplay. Yet I can’t bring myself to join those accolades, mainly due to the flaws in the script. We’ll get to that shortly.

The story centers around Mildred Hayes, whose daughter was raped and murdered, and the police haven’t made any progress. Frustrated, she rents three billboards demanding action. She gets considerably more than she bargained for. 

Frances McDormand is at her very best portraying Mildred. You can understand why she’s so bitter, and can completely understand how such a devastating loss can take all joy away from life; I’ve seen it over and over again in the families of those who have lost loved ones to senseless violence. It takes a long time to heal. 

Similarly, Sam Rockwell is a marvel as racist cop Jason Dixon; his anger runs deep, and seldom does Rockwell’s Dixon seem far from exploding. He brings such a deep sincerity to the role, you almost have to wonder about him in real life. I won’t be surprised if he wins an Oscar. McDormand, too.   

Also, a nod to Woody Harrelson, who is in fine form as Police Chief William Willoughby, probably the sanest resident of Ebbing. He manages to give Willoughby charm and depth as the chief juggles any number of difficult circumstances. Harrelson is a long shot for the Oscar, but he could pull it off.

The other bit of good news is that, as a portrait of Fox News America, Three Billboards is a perfect study. The denizens of Ebbing are ignorant, illiterate, violent, and racist. They act on their impulses and never think anything through. They can’t see ten minutes into the future. Whatever his flaws as a researcher, writer-director Martin McDonagh really knows Trump country. And it’s a scary place.

Now, for the bad news: McDonagh does not know how criminal investigation works, and that takes away a lot of the story’s power. One character commits a violent crime in broad daylight in front of many witnesses, and is not arrested. Another, the first person the police would talk to in this particular case, commits a serious crime as well, and nobody shows up. I realize the police force in this town is about as redneck as it gets, but come on. 

McDonagh’s screenplay also reflects the two greatest flaws of cinema today: the film has no moral center, and McDonagh has obviously read too many story manuals. You can see it in the structure, the way the characters often seem to be going through their paces to get to the next plot point. This is one of many reasons nobody should use screenwriting software. 

There are almost no likeable characters, either, though every once in a while, McDonagh lightens up; McDormand has a lovely, quiet scene while she’s sprucing up the billboards, for instance. The film needed a couple more of those. 

Finally, there’s no good guy. Everyone seems amoral and not to care about the consequences of their actions. They don’t seem to care who gets hurt. They don’t feel guilty. That, more than anything else, is what’s missing from too many movies these days. We may have action and drama, but there’s no heart anymore. 

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