“Three Billboards” is polished and impressive “small film” about a grieving mother and her escalating attempts to humiliate a small-town police chief into solving the murder of her teenage daughter. Frances McDormand plays the mom, Mildred Hayes, and the billboards in Ebbing are the site of her campaign. I enjoyed the film, especially Mildred’s rude fierceness. The movie’s also done incredibly well for itself – a small haul of Golden Globes and an Oscar Best Actress for McDormand herself, and Best Supporting Actor for Sam Rockwell playing a particularly racist and homophobic cop.
But, but, the movie’s not been without its detractors and indeed there’s been something of a backlash against the film. In particular, critics have objected to the casual care with which Rockwell’s character is treated given his evident vileness, as well as his shot of redemption at the end. As Wesley Morris suggests in the NYT “This Is Not America.”
The title and location of Three Billboards makes it seem like the movie is saying something grand about human nature in small-town America. But none of it rings true……“Three Billboards” is a cupcake rolled in glass. It all just feels off.
I think there’s stuff that could be said here about “it’s a fiction, not a documentary” and “it does not have to be about anything to be a great piece of entertainment”. But the more I thought about this overnight, the more I came up with this:
Three Billboards is written and directed by a foreigner and this is exactly how foreigners see small town America. We see the MAGA caps and the #metoos and the mass gun deaths in small town high schools, and the Sandra Blands and Philando Castiles and Trayvon Martins and Alton Sterlings killed by cops or white guys with a grievance, we see the Dakota Access Pipeline trashing the environment and the rights of Native Peoples, we see the body shaming and the pussy grabbing and the “good people” Nazi marches and the know-nothings holding the microphones – and we see that nothing, nothing is ever done to hold America accountable for all of its self-harm.
You can’t blame us for believing that every racist white guy gets to ride off into the sunset, because generally we see that they do. And Martin McDonagh has every right to use his voice, to raise his opinions, to talk about this impression – or in fact to tell whatever stories about it that he damn well wants to.