Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I’ve just finished watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the film which won a hatload of Oscars at the last Academy Awards. What follows are my thoughts which contain major spoilers, so if you’ve not seen it, don’t read on.

Frankly, it’s shite, written especially so that right-on liberals can have all their prejudices confirmed and swoon over each other at the Oscars. The main character Mildred, played by Frances McDormand, is nine months on from her daughter being raped (of course) and murdered with the crime remaining unsolved. Understandably upset, she erects three billboards aimed at humiliating the local police chief, a man called Willoughby played by Woody Harrelson, into doing something. Shortly afterwards, Mildred is told by Willoughby that the case went cold because the DNA on her daughters body didn’t match anyone who’s been arrested or was linked to any other crime in the USA, nor were there any witnesses. Mildred suggests, apparently in all seriousness, that every male in the country should be put on a database, something which I’m sure many fans of this film think is a great idea.

We’re led to believe the local police are incompetent boobs – which perhaps they are given the size of the town. Are they equipped to deal with murders? I don’t know, but it would have made an interesting story. Instead, they simply made Willoughby’s staff a bunch of racist, homophobic, alcoholic, knuckle-dragging rednecks which make the depiction of the backwoods guys in Deliverance look even-handed. Obviously they thought crude stereotypes was the way to Oscar victory because they also gave Mildred a violent, alcoholic ex-husband who left her for a pretty woman half his age. Why this young woman would be attracted to this man, who didn’t show any characteristics which would answer the question, is left to the viewer to guess. Naturally, the writers had to make her thick as pigshit, presumably so men in real life don’t go getting ideas, and included not one but two God-awful scenes which felt like they’d been plucked from a sitcom. Oddly, none of the feminists applauding the film at the Oscars objected to the notion that if a woman is young and pretty she’s also stupid, and if she’s stupid it’s okay to ridicule her.

Notably, Mildred’s ex-husband also didn’t seem too cut up over the fact his daughter had been raped and murdered. Rather than burning the place to the ground as I imagine most violent redneck fathers would, this was left to Mildred. In case we too dense to understand why she was so affected by her daughter’s murder, we’re treated to a scene where she and her two teenage brats hurl abuse at one another before the daughter storms out of the house saying “I hope I get raped” and Mildred shouts “I hope you get raped too.” And sure enough, she gets raped. If this passes for Oscar-worthy scriptwriting, I reckon I might take the next flight to Hollywood.

On the subject of dialogue, it is appalling throughout. I’m with Tim Worstall on this:

The use of the term “fuck” would have seemed heavy handed in a movie about mobsters, gang bangers or soldiers under heavy fire. And there is a scene where the main character is called a “cunt” at the breakfast table by her teenage son – twice, in fact. In another scene the police chief is arranging a picnic game to keep his two very young daughters busy so he and his wife can slip away for some romance. He tells them the rules include that “no one can set foot off this God damn blanket” (I’m working from memory, so pardon me if I got the quote slightly wrong, and I believe he dropped two “God damns” in the scene). Maybe I’m out of touch, but using that language with 4 year olds just seems peculiar.

The whole film feels as though it were written by a bunch of teenagers who’d just discovered a Tarantino film and thought foul language is what makes a movie great. Tim is also correct when he says:

One other example of how dark the movie is – we are told that the town generally sides with the police chief and disapproves of the billboards. So, when our protagonist goes to the dentist she gets a very chilly reception. So chilly in fact, that he tries to drill a tooth without anaesthetic. That scene definitely lost me – seriously, a dentist would torture a grieving mother whose daughter was “raped while dying” over billboards on a road we were told no one uses anymore.

I didn’t buy this either. Any small town in which a teenager has been raped and murdered would be overwhelmingly and indefinitely sympathetic to her mother. What the writers were trying to do is convince us that small-town Americans in flyover country are nasty, vindictive, and backward. It probably doesn’t surprise anyone at this point that the only people who show any sort of human warmth towards Mildred are a black (or mixed-race) woman, a black man, another black man, a dwarf, and a gay man. House!

For those clinging to the hope that the story might at least hold together, it doesn’t. A strange man comes into Mildred’s shop and intimidates her, who we later think might be the killer, but it’s proven that he wasn’t. So why was he threatening her? We don’t find out, but we do know that he’s a soldier (boo! hiss!) and probably raped someone else, so Mildred and redneck-cop-turned-good take off at the end of the film to murder him. Presumably this constitutes justice in someone’s world.

There are a few fleetingly good moments: Willoughby’s words from beyond the grave are touching, but would have been better said in person rather than read from a letter. Both Harrelson and McDormand can act, but we didn’t need this film to tell us that. And the soundtrack is good, particularly Townes Van Zandt’s Buckskin Stallion Blues. I should listen to more Townes Van Zandt, and so should you. It would be a better use of your time than watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

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24 thoughts on “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

  1. On the subject of dialogue, it is appalling throughout

    And has been for years, even decades. Perhaps I just notice it now.

    The worst are historical adaptations where the actors all sound and speak like they are on Eastenders. “Leave it Brutus, he ain’t wurf it!”

  2. Think this is a little harsh, but it is disappointing; I recommend seeing Hangmen or The Pillowman instead.

  3. I am reminded of William Goldman’s famous dictum: ‘No one in Hollywood knows anything.’

    While admittedly he was talking about whether a movie will be successful or not, the principle applies to their world-view these days.

    But in my view, given the number of movies I have watched over the years, I am coming to the conclusion that not only do Hollywoodians not know anything, they keep making the same half-a-dozen movies over and over and over again…

  4. ” they keep making the same half-a-dozen movies over and over and over again…” Bloody typical. There are only seven stories and even then Hollywood manages to miss one out.

  5. What follows are my thoughts which contain major spoilers, so if you’ve not seen it, don’t read on.

    Frankly, it’s shite

    I do wish more movie reviews were this concise and to the point.

    I could rant on this topic for hours, but I’ll stick with two points that leaped out at me.

    First, yes, the movie’s a cartoonish caricature. That said, caricatures work because they exaggerate noticeable features. Having done a lot of charity work in severely economically depressed cities and towns, these:

    Mildred’s ex-husband also didn’t seem too cut up over the fact his daughter had been raped and murdered.
    I didn’t buy this either. Any small town in which a teenager has been raped and murdered would be overwhelmingly and indefinitely sympathetic to her mother.
    Mildred and redneck-cop-turned-good take off at the end of the film to murder him

    are entirely believable to me. A better movie might have delved into the reasons why our assumptions about how people “ought” to react in situations like this are so terribly wrong in reality, and how much economic hardship, drugs in a community and/or the breakdown of the traditional family contribute to this.

    There’s an interesting analog here in Canada. A 15 year old girl committed suicide as a result of being raped and subsequent Internet bullying by her classmates. By all the news accounts it was horrible; the mother even moved the family to another town to get the daughter a fresh start, but the Internet is global. There was a massive public hue and cry when none of the alleged teenage assailants were charged, resulting in the federal police re-opening the investigation and vowing to charge the boys responsible with something.

    Well, the narrative fell apart almost immediately. It turned out that the girl in question was the class bike, had had drunken sex with three boys at once at an unsupervised house party, and had only claimed “rape” after photos of the foursome were circulated amongst her classmates. Mom frantically scrubbed her daughters social media accounts of all the clear indications that her daughter was the class bike and demanded the rapists be charged, but multiple people gave the police the full story, concerned that three teenage boys were going to be pilloried for a crime that hadn’t actually happened. Public opinion turned against the mother, and compelling questions like “what was a 15 year old girl doing at an unsupervised house party at 1 am” and “where was the father during all this” were raised.

    So I think the best way to look at the film is that it’s not a third-person omniscient narrator, but rather the mother’s internal narrative of what happened, constructed so as to allow her to absolve herself of any responsibility for her daughter’s death while deflecting it on to anyone and everyone else.

    The worst are historical adaptations where the actors all sound and speak like they are on Eastenders.

    I read a lot of historical fiction and watch a lot of historical drama, and I know some of the writers in passing. This is an unsolved problem. It’s simply not possible to use historically accurate language (although I did watch a docudrama on the Spartacus revolt once where all the dialogue was in correct classical Latin and subtitled in English), and Received Pronunciation is no more historically accurate than a Liverpudlian drawl. I know some producers try to square this circle by “matching accents” – if a character is supposed to be from a poor rural area they’ll cast an actor with a Southern US accent – but this rarely works very well in practice, since the associations and connotations of a regional accent go deeper than that.

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with it; I’ll accept it as one of the inevitable concessions to practicality.

  6. Not me saying those things, it’s another writer at my site….

    Ah, I thought it was a bit out of character. But the byline says “by Tim Worstall”, so you might want to change that to avoid confusion.

  7. The worst are historical adaptations where the actors all sound and speak like they are on Eastenders. “Leave it Brutus, he ain’t wurf it!”

    Ah yes, Ray Winstone.

  8. A better movie might have delved into the reasons why our assumptions about how people “ought” to react in situations like this are so terribly wrong in reality, and how much economic hardship, drugs in a community and/or the breakdown of the traditional family contribute to this.

    Indeed, that would have been a very good film. But shorn of this sort of background, we’re left with mere cartoons and behaviours which don’t convince. By contrast, I found both Winter’s Bone and Frozen River very convincing in their depictions of poverty and delinquent behaviour.

    So I think the best way to look at the film is that it’s not a third-person omniscient narrator, but rather the mother’s internal narrative of what happened, constructed so as to allow her to absolve herself of any responsibility for her daughter’s death while deflecting it on to anyone and everyone else.

    Maybe I’ll watch it again to see if they did this. I don’t think so, though. It would have been a better film if they did.

  9. Maybe I’ll watch it again to see if they did this. I don’t think so

    Oh, I’m absolutely not claiming they did. It’s a transparent polemic. I’m merely pointing out that it’s possible to view the movie through that lens, and if you assume that what you’re seeing is a self-justifying unreliable narrator, it may redeem the movie somewhat. Or at least the two hours you had to spend watching it.

    There’s an amusing deconstruction of The Karate Kid that does the same thing.

  10. Hollywood now exists to disseminate leftist agitprop. Everything else is second to that.

    There is the problem in a nutshell.

  11. Belligerent cursing, even towards very small children, is, unfortunately, a thing in a subculture of the US. I’ve seen it with black & white but one commonality seems to be teen mothers with the ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ attitude. The escalation of parenting is :
    1) yell “don’t do that”
    2) yell louder
    3) yell and curse
    4) yell louder and curse more
    5) yell, curse and threaten
    6) repeat
    7a) give up and ignore the kid
    OR
    7b) get mad enough to get up and stop the kid and smack him and vent, cursing and screaming.

  12. I did get a kick out of the fact that the movie ended up being condemned and excoriated by a good chunk of the progressive community because of its huge ideological flaw.

    The sheriff was presented as a violent racist through his history of having badly beaten and abused a black prisoner for the crime of being black. But the movie also presented him as a flawed but redeemable human being with his own demons – i.e., the movie failed to make clear that there is no excuse or redemption for racism, it failed to make this guy into a monster.

    The lib outcry over this movie was substantial. If they could have retracted the Golden Globes awards, I think they would have.

  13. But the movie also presented him as a flawed but redeemable human being with his own demons – i.e., the movie failed to make clear that there is no excuse or redemption for racism, it failed to make this guy into a monster.

    Ah, so having initially set up the character to be a pantomime villain they failed to persuade people that he wasn’t. Not very good these writers, are they?

  14. I think if you’re going to a McDonagh piece looking for realism you’ve made a major category error to start off with.

    I mean, do you think The Lieutenant of Innishmore is a documentary?

  15. I think if you’re going to a McDonagh piece looking for realism you’ve made a major category error to start off with.

    In Bruges wasn’t in the slightest bit realistic, but it was beautifully shot with a great story and interesting characters. Three Billboards had none of these redeeming features, and even the good shots seemed forced (e.g. the one of the billboards on fire). I found Seven Psychopaths a bit of a jumbled mess.

  16. Seven Psychopaths is a jumbled mess.

    As above: I recommend seeing Hangmen or The Pillowman instead. Or maybe the new one later this year, I think it’s called A Very Very Very Dark Matter.

  17. I recommend seeing Hangmen or The Pillowman instead. Or maybe the new one later this year

    Links to IMDb might help. I looked them up and found multiple films of the same name, if they’re obscure and hard to find I don’t want to waste the effort trying to download the wrong one!

  18. No offense mate but every liberal, leftist or feminist has hated this movie, partly for all the reasons you have smartly pointed out, partly because it is a tonal mess, a confused amalgam of Tarantino and Cohen brothers and partly because somehow the Bad Cop is redeemed.

    Speaking of Bad Cops, you have disingeniously written that all the town’s cops are portrayed as bad. This is not true, the Bad Cop was just the one. Do you seriously claim that no Bad Cops exist in America? Let me remind you of a funny incident that went down last year. A cop pulled over an extremely anxious white woman and to calm her nerves he jokingly (?) said, “Relax maam we only shoot black people”.

  19. No offense mate but every liberal, leftist or feminist has hated this movie

    Then how the hell did it win all those Oscars? I confess I don’t know who decides who wins what, but I’m guessing the panel isn’t stuffed with rednecks and conservatives.

    Speaking of Bad Cops, you have disingeniously written that all the town’s cops are portrayed as bad. This is not true, the Bad Cop was just the one.

    That’s not how I saw it. Both Willoughby and Dixon were portrayed as racist, and the rest of them hardly presented in flattering light.

    Do you seriously claim that no Bad Cops exist in America?

    Eh?

  20. Film is worth it for some great scenes – firebombing the police station is excellent. What pissed me off was that it didn’t resolve itself – the prospect of catching the bad guy was raised and then dashed. Altogether too self-knowing and cynical for a redneck movie. But better than “shite”.

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