Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This review was first published on Facebook in March 2018

Frances McDormand winning the Best Actress Oscar has inspired me to put fingers to keyboard for this film I saw over a week ago. I’m not saying McDormand wasn’t good, but I still reckon Margot Robbie should have won for her role in I, Tonya. Her job was much more demanding: she had to play someone from a different background and culture – American white trash, at several different ages and in a variety of moods. McDormand is also playing white trash, but her character doesn’t age and is always angry – no mood variation. Plus she has the advantage of already being American.

I have other reservations about this movie, foremost among them being the ugly violence, which I think caused dramatic problems and narrative incoherence. For instance, I found it implausible that a psychologically damaged racist cop could suddenly turn Good Guy on the strength of a deathbed pep-talk letter from his boss, the police chief targeted by McDormand’s grieving mother in her billboard campaign. Are we to believe someone capable of administering a vicious beating (depicted onscreen) to an innocent young man and ‘torturing niggers’ (not depicted but reported by other characters) can change overnight?

Not only is the violence extreme but sometimes it’s gratuitous. The racist cop suffers a cruel beating (lavishly depicted) himself later on, but why? If he thought the guy he overheard in the bar was the murderer, wouldn’t he have kept quiet about it and followed it up some other way? Or was he supposed to be ‘asking for it’ in an act of redemptive violence?

From a dramatic point of view I had trouble sympathising with Mildred Hayes, the Frances McDormand character, because she seems to be prone to cruelty and violent rage herself, as in the incident with the dentist. One of my movie companions said it was all about the different ways people grieve, but if that’s the case, where does that leave questions of morality? I detect worrying undertones of fashionable moral ambivalence here: Mildred’s violence is excused because she’s a grieving woman; the young racist cop is excused in the end because of his disadvantaged upbringing. Being a victim, or belonging to a victimised class, confers certain privileges, it seems.

The ending is enigmatic but I think it reinforces the film’s unsavoury attitude to violence. Won’t say more for fear of spoiling. Three out of five stars from me, and at least one of those is for the soundtrack. I loved the music, especially that lovely new traditional version of ‘The Last Rose of Summer’. Couldn’t quite figure out why this sentimental 19th century parlour ballad was chosen as the theme song for a violent movie set in the modern American backwoods, but it was nice to hear it again. I might even get it on iTunes.