Irreconcilable Differences: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

Thursday, February 1, 2018 - 5:06pm


Fox Searchlight Pictures


“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the latest in the recent trend of movies that bathe themselves in nihilism to the point of becoming a joke. “Three Billboards” is one of those movies. It is so depressing, so filled with anger and hate and death and destruction that one wonders what the point of it all is, or perhaps what the point of watching the movie is. It’s well-produced, well-acted and competently directed, but the picture tries too hard to be important and forgets to actually tell a compelling story.

To be sure, there is an interesting premise at the heart of “Three Billboards,” but it is one that is stretched thinly over the film's tediously long running time. The main story runs out of steam somewhere around the 70-minute mark and never recovers. There’s only so much you can do with a premise in which the answers to the film’s central questions are known to not exist almost from the first frame of the film.

Much has been made about how the movie deals with issues of class and race. Your opinion may vary but many may find it hard to root for the racist cop we hear has tortured people and whom we watch throw a man through a second story window of a building. The film attempts to turn this character into an antihero or at least someone we should root for later on, but for many audience members, it may be a difficult reach. The movie already asks us to continue rooting for Mildred even after she blows up an entire police station, something that is barely addressed in the rest of the film.

“Three Billboards” was advertised as a Cohen brothers-y or Tarintino-like action comedy, yet the movie is nothing like that at all. The film has some of the most unlikeable protagonists that were put on screen this year, and we’re not really given a good enough reason to care about them. The initial violence at the heart of the story is offset by more violent actions across the board to the point where the film is so awash in horrible things happening to various people that the viewer begins to become detached from the actual story, and eventually ceases to care.

Some people might like movies that offer no hope throughout their entire runtime. Others will not. The world we are in is dark enough as it is without our movies needing to also be dark and depressing Missourian wastelands in crisis. The film never tries to get into the deeper complexities of why the town itself barely cares about the atrocities committed, or why a new Black sheriff doesn’t seem concerned by the horrible crimes the police force perpetrated before he got there. It’s a shock-and-awe film, smaller in scale than the superhero blockbusters that fill multiplexes in the summer, but no more intelligent. 

— Ian Harris, Daily Arts Writer

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a raw, emotional tidal wave of a film that offers one of the most brutally honest depictions of grief to ever reach the big screen. Frances McDormand (“Hail, Caesar!”) gives the performance of a lifetime as Mildred Hayes, a woman tormented by a mixture of guilt and seething rage at the world that has taken her daughter from her. McDormand communicates Mildred’s pain so effectively that it seems to permeate her every word and action, from her sarcastic remarks to her biting vulgarity. In Mildred, we see a woman who has coped with the indescribable pain of loss by becoming tough and callous, a veneer that falls away only a few times throughout the film to reveal just how much she longs to have her daughter back. 

One of the film’s hallmarks is its focus on dichotomy. At times devastatingly tragic and at others laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally at the same time, the film’s performances serve as the cornerstone to bring audiences on the same emotional journey as the characters. Each character in the film is granted an extensive emotional range to explore, and it’s that same extensive array that makes the film so impactful; the tone shifts from serious to hilarious to tragic in a matter of minutes, but this juxtaposition never feels unnatural. In fact, it’s that very oscillation between emotional extremes that allows the film to depict the volatility of grief with such keen accuracy. “Three Billboards” knows that emotions are never cleanly tied with a bow; Mildred’s loss shows us that sadness is seldom just sadness, and Willoughby’s idyllic final day with his family shows us that joy is seldom just joy. It’s these conflicts that arise from the characters’ own emotions –– coupled with the cast’s adept ability to portray them –– that make the film so intensely human. 

“Three Billboards” seems like a film that would deliver a brutal, pessimistic view of humanity. The film is steeped in tragedy and shows people at their absolute worst, desperately clawing after love or power or control in whatever way they can. In spite of that, however, it never fails to come through to show people at their best, with their incredible capacity for kindness, empathy and ultimately, redemption. It’s a film that shows human nature for all that it is, and is one of the greatest films to come out in this decade. 

— Max Michalsky, Daily Arts Writer

“Three Billboards” is entertaining because it is ridiculous, which, I’m certain, is not what the filmmakers intended. If the objective is to convince an unassuming audience in less than two hours that people are selfish and evil, then the movie is indeed a smashing success. But if humanity is meant to be portrayed with any sense of subtlety or subtext, “Three Billboards” fails tragically on all accounts.

Perhaps “tragic” is the key word here, since the film is so preoccupied with shoving every imaginable tragedy down the throat of its audience. It collects just about all the Oscar-worthy buzzwords: rape, murder, suicide, homophobia, racism, police brutality, domestic violence, arson, depression, alcoholism, disability and misogyny, just to name a few. And if that isn’t enough, the script throws in a half-baked monologue about the Catholic Church for good measure. Surely, you must be feeling something now, right?

And then there’s the flashback scene, which is, in one word, infuriating. Just before the film goes into completely insane territory, from where there is no return, a standalone flashback is tucked into the otherwise linear story for the singular purpose of throwing another punch. And even though it’s supposed to hurt, it doesn’t even break the skin. In the only scene where we see her raped and murdered teenage daughter, Mildred (Frances McDormand, “Hail, Caesar!”) passionately yells, “I hope you get raped!” as she watches her daughter barge out the door in a way all strong-headed teenage girls supposedly do. Frankly, the flashback is insulting. Not only is the writing inorganic and reduces the mother-daughter relationship to a stereotypical caricature of petty drama, it presents a source of guilt for Mildred that is completely unnecessary and unrelated to the rest of the narrative. Isn’t losing a child enough? Clearly, “Three Billboards” follows the “more the merrier” approach to suffocating its audience.

On one point, I will concede: Across the board, the acting is superb. Frances McDormand is nothing short of fantastic and her supporting cast delivers exquisite performances that are indeed worthy of Oscar nominations. The meat of the film, however, lacks any sort of nuance, and therefore the film will meet its fate as “that sad Oscar film” in the not too distant future. All show and no follow-through, “Three Billboards” fails to say anything profound at all, even though it tries really, really hard.

— Danielle Yacobson, Managing Arts Editor