‘Three Billboards’ is a Deeply Important Prestige Picture (some minor spoilers)

Today, I went and saw Martin McDonagh’s third feature film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. McDonagh’s films take some time to digest (his initial feature went from a film I liked to one I consider a masterpiece over a period of years), but after having had an afternoon to think about it, Three Billboards has solidified in my mind as not only a great film but an important statement on hatred and violence, subtly masked in layers of black comedy.

In the wake of the film’s sweeping victory at the Golden Globes, I’ve noted an uptick in the inevitable backlash against the film (which will only get worse as we enter the Oscar race). The film has specifically come under fire for its perspective on race and racism on the police force. I think these criticisms miss the movies overtly tolerant message which in turn does a disservice to a hugely compelling film. As such I’d like to lay out my case for Three Billboards. Some spoilers will follow, but nothing gigantic.

McDonagh is, to me, the more intelligent cousin to Quentin Tarantino. Whereas Tarantino’s films present a dazzling veneer of playwright-like dialogue over a hollow core, McDonagh puts his dialogue prowess on display as a way to deliver meditations on grief and philosophy. As such, Three Billboards is a talky, complicated film with a large cast and sprawling story that defies expectations (it had me guessing at where it was going until the final scene).

The plot follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, rawly compelling) as her frustration at the unsolved rape/murder of her daughter drives her to put up three signs condemning the local police chief (Woody Harrelson). This declaration of war engenders a wide variety of reactions including fury from the dim-witted, nasty police deputy Jason Dixon played by Same Rockwell. Dixon, whose past includes accusations of a racially motivated torture, gets entwined in the story in some surprising and significant ways as the plot moves on. 

Minor Spoilers

By the end of the film, Dixon has not been redeemed exactly but has paid brutally for some of his mistakes and taken the first tentative steps towards being a better person.

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In the film, each character is treated with compassion and generosity. These characters include a wife-beater, an arsonist, a drunk, and yes, a racist bully of a cop. Many have been offended by the film’s implication that Rockwell’s character is deserving of any sympathy or in any way redeemed by the events of the film. This to me, is a gigantic mistake, first in terms of film-understanding and second in terms of compassion. The film is not in any way about race, it just happens that racism is used as a means of getting across the way in which Dixon’s fundamental hatred and immorality manifest. The movie makes no statement on race or racism, instead contenting itself to broader subject of hatred and violence (one scene points out overtly that Dixon is a brute to people of all races). The message of the film is that hatred, even aimed at those most deserving of hate (racist cops, rapists, and wife-beaters) can only beget more hatred in turn. As such, to break this cycle of escalating violence and anger, someone needs to let hatred go and take a higher road.

This brings us to the subject of compassion. The movie never once says that Dixon’s actions are justified (they aren’t, they’re brutal and nasty, the acts of a coward and monster). Instead it makes the case that there is potential, even in very bad people, for change. We aren’t asked to forgive Dixon so much as understand that he is a human being and has the same capacity as any other human being. The same treatment is given to Mildred, a woman whose grief at the loss of her daughter has driven her to such hate-filled extremes that she’s destroying the few human connections that remain to her. In both her story and Dixon’s (which are fundamentally parallel), the eventual conclusion is that hatred is a poison that must be abandoned before it destroys everything in its path. As such, the movie extends not sympathy exactly, but a sense of understanding and humanity that allows you to understand its complex cast.

I would agree with the critics of the film that what Dixon goes through in the film isn’t enough to make what he has done alright. But I would disagree with the unspoken implication that it’s not alright to sympathize with someone who is guilty of so heinous a crime. In many ways, I think McDonagh’s film is brave to insist, fervently, that if we are to grow as people, we must extend compassion wherever it’s needed.

All this is not to say the film is without flaws of course (a few characters aren’t given enough time to feel like more than minor plot points, and Abby Cornish feels miscast), but it is a masterful work advocating peace and hope in a manor that made even my cynical side stop and watch. It’s become popular to decry how awful the last few years have supposedly been (more a symptom of people’s mindset than any actual events), and this film is to me the perfect response–a keenly realized depiction of how difficult and necessary growth really is.

2017 has been an interesting year of film with, unfortunately, not that many that I connected with deeply. But it strikes me that the deeply challenging, divisive, and excellent Three Billboards is the perfect way to close out the year as it has a little of everything: some dark comedy (one scene’s repeated use of the word ‘fuckhead’ is gut-bustingly good), some emotional material (I teared up for perhaps the only time this year), a complex, fully-realized story, and a message that stays with you after the final credits roll. It won’t be for everyone, but I strongly hope that the message of its misconstrued racisms doesn’t become its key identifier. I saw one person claiming it was this year’s version of “Crash”, and I think we can all agree, that’s far, far too harsh.

 

 

 

  • DryButSoupy

    Exactly. I had a time where the right script did me a lot of good. But,, there’s also the potential for overmedication or one that does more harm than good. That’s where the competency and values of your doctor come in.

  • DryButSoupy

    I’d be up for that. DMBI has my name/contact info. It’s got my real world name so I’m reluctant to blurt it out in a public forum. Send me an invitation or add me to a contact list or somefing, dude.

  • William Dhalgren

    We have a group chat. It’s good stuff.

  • William Dhalgren

    That sounds dramatic. Hangouts is a good way to keep up with folks. Join the dark side.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    Whatever you decide to do, look into getting a Google hangouts account.
    Most of us are on it and although i might not always offer the best advice, I’m always there to listen.
    As are a lot of people here.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Not false. I legitimately wouldn’t have gotten through if I hadn’t become a gym nut (and after that a running nut).

    Meds can be good though, it’s just tricky.

  • DryButSoupy

    Yeah, you never know what will happen with meds. I tend to think that many shrinks overmedicate these days. She might want to go to a counselor rather than an MD.

    In lieu of chemical assistance, mindfulness practice and exercise can do a world of good.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    Everything involving Méliès is my favorite thing.
    But that’s because he fascinates the hell out of me

  • Sailor Monsoon

    According to my mother (because i also don’t do anything besides that sweet sweet cocaine) there’s strands made specifically to help with anxiety
    Edited
    Is there anyway to say mother without sounding like norman fucking bates?

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I don’t. I’m an old fashioned square. I don’t drink or do anything mild and recreational.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    Next obvious question but do you smoke the “marijuana?”
    It helps both her brother and my mom but she can’t take it because of her job

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Yes actually. It runs in my family so I’m medicated for depression and anxiety which has improved things a lot. I get what she’s scared of and there’s something to it (they had to try a few things before they found one that worked), but it’s made me more myself somehow.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I know it’s an obvious question but have you been to a doctor?
    She refuses to go because she’s afraid she’ll get worse

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Geez, I’m sorry for her and glad she’s got you who clearly get it. I’m outwardly really great but anything I have an emotional stake in is misery.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    “Real life comes first”

  • Sailor Monsoon

    My girlfriend suffers from social anxiety pretty bad
    Not many people can really understand it.
    She’s still never met my parents and we’ve been together for almost 4 years.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I’m actually extraordinarily extroverted. I know the stereotype is awkward nerd, but I’m very outgoing people like me (people are usually surprised I’m single…which is really nice of them), but I’ve been severely socially anxious my entire life which makes normal socializing really hard. I always assume (sometimes subconsciously) that people don’t like me or want to be around me. It’s been a rough adolescence to young adult-hood.

  • DryButSoupy

    Ah. I hear you there. It’s good that you’re self-aware enough to realize those things about yourself. When I was your age it was a rare weekend when I didn’t have anything to do. But that’s changed drastically in the last 10 years or so, not exactly sure why. But I’m a born introvert, so being alone is often my preference. That’s not to say I want to be isolated or not socialize at all…I just have to force myself sometimes. I’ll make plans that sound fun when I make them and the day arrives and I immediately try to come up with reasons not to go.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Basically all that is to say, it’s nothing hard and fast, but I just have this feeling I may be on less soon.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Nah, nothing that personal. About once a year I get fed up with how much time I waste online and quit a lot of my outlets for a month or so. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I’ve been pretty depressed lately, and over the next year I’d like to focus on forging a real-life support network. I’m getting old to be alone so much (24 next month, haven’t dated in about five years, have no close friends, can go a long time without interacting with people).

  • DryButSoupy

    That’s a shame…can I ask why? Not to be nosy or anything. I know that sometimes real-world responsibilities take precedence.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I’ve actually been toying with the idea of connecting with some of the people I like on here that way. I feel like perhaps my time with this site is drawing to a close.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Ah, fair enough. But that seems more like a facet of overall creative bankruptcy than it does strictly nostalgia (though I think that was your point anyway).

    I would hold though that even within the mainsteam there’s some good stuff every year (not a ton mind you, this year was rough).

  • DryButSoupy

    Yeah. Well, technically I am. I have a google account and have swapped a few messages with a couple people on there, but I’m not actually “on” there that much.

  • William Dhalgren

    I’m talking about mainstream studio pictures.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Yeah, never heard anything good about that one.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I still would say that’s only the mediocre directors. I think there’s plenty of originality in Hollywood if you care to view it.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I would agree that Tarantino doesn’t do nostalgia (at least not purely), but his work is still more concerned with surface styling than it is with storytelling. He’s by no means derivative like say JJ Abrams, but I’d still put him lower than some of the directors I love like Nolan, Weir, or Fincher who tell fully developed stories.

    In other words, it’s true that he’s not aping anyone, but I can think of plenty of others who the same can be said of (Wes Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron, David Fincher, Mart McDonagh, Edgar Wright, etc.)

  • William Dhalgren

    That’s not the problem. The problem is that they largely aren’t bringing anything new to the table. As you said, they’re simply aping something they grew up loving. It’s neither original nor endearing. It’s tired. It’s regressive. We need directors who want to say something and who want to say it in their own words. But it’s a lot easier for the studios to repackage something we already love and sell it back to us.

    Also, I agree with you about Tarantino. It’s not hard to pick out the influences in his films, but even though you can spot the obvious influences, his films are his films. It’s not an easy thing to be inspired by art and not copy it.

  • William Dhalgren

    I loathed Hugo for this reason.

  • William Dhalgren

    Are you on Google Hangouts?

  • DryButSoupy

    That’s my opinion of “Basterds.” That first scene at the French farmhouse is possibly the best 15 or 20 minutes he’s ever put on film. It’s a tutorial in building suspense. Hitchcock, I think, would have loved it. The rest of the movie, though, is good in places but overall not one of his best.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I think what you’re describing is my problem with nostalgia.
    Every filmmaker today is aping their favorite filmmakers from their childhood but the problem with that, is the fact that most of their favorite filmmakers are still alive.
    The big directors that came out of the 70’s were all influenced by the ghosts of cinemas past, which is why their films felt revolutionary. Their legends weren’t alive to be compared to.
    Cut to today and the films automatically feel inferior because Spielberg is still alive. And still very much active.
    Tarantino doesn’t do nostalgia.
    He’s not aping anyone’s style or aesthetic.
    He maybe constantly borrowing but his homages are never meant to inspire nostalgia in the audience.
    Oh and you definitely need to check out the Shape of Water.
    It’s a love letter but a love letter with heart.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Side note: I would say that there feels like there are some sprinklings of actual meaning in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs…but only lightly.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I’d say that’s right and add on an opinion which you might not share: I don’t like love letters to cinema. It’s part of the reason I’m not that interested in The Shape of Water. Cinema is to me a vehicle for story, a vehicle for meaning. Tarantino likes the actual shape of films, the bobbles, ticks and tricks that make them whir. But he could care less about the world in which his characters live. It’s a game, when the curtain rises we are given a cast, and when the curtain falls, their job is over.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that if he’s going for nothing more than love letters to cinema, it ends up to me to indeed be something lesser. How wonderfully the lines his characters churn would stick with me if they were about something other than their own poetic rhythm.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    That’s true but i don’t think he’s striving for meaning.
    His films are nothing more than love letters to cinema.
    Nothing more, nothing less.
    Edited:
    Although an argument could be made for the hateful eight having a message but I’m not the one to make it because that’s my least favorite of his films

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I’d post something long as a response but you said it better than I could. This is exactly right.

  • DryButSoupy

    I agree with your appraisal of Tarantino, by the way. As much as I like his (early) movies, the dialogue and technical craft always seem to be superficial. I don’t think many of his movies have any deep meaning or significance. They’re sometimes like live action cartoons for grown-ups…and when things don’t quite work they take on a whiff of unintentional self-parody. And again, let me state that he’s a master of script-writing and technique…but I don’t think his movies have any real soul.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Thanks much for reading, for the compliment, and for your take on the themes.

    I agree about ours being a judgmental culture. I think that’s why this film is so important in how it deconstructs and rebuilds the notions of hatred and virtue that we as a culture are currently reveling in. I would really recommend you do see the movie as I think the buzz around it will turn toxic as we get nearer to oscar season and you might really enjoy going into it without that.

  • DryButSoupy

    Good article. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s had my attention. I appreciate the nuanced perspective on human nature and all our capacity for good OR evil you take. We’re a judgmental culture, unwilling to forgive even small “sins” of one type or another. We also tend to lump minor transgressions in with more serious crimes and vices. People have also gotten into the habit of forgiving people who are “on their side” while condemning individuals they don’t like for doing the exact same things. “Forgiveness (or excuses) for people like me, but not for people like you” seems to be the current attitude. There’s a lot I could say here because you’ve touched on something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, but I suppose I’ll have to save that for another time.

    You’re a good writer, man. Even when I might not share your opinions, I like reading your contributions.

  • ResonanceCascade

    I want Scott to make another Blade Runner on the off chance it’s good. If it sucks, I’ll just ignore it.

  • Nokoo

    Even that criticism I find faulty. Again and again, the black characters are shown to be way more compassionate than the whites. It’s the minorities and marginalized (Dinklage’s character included) who are the better people.

  • William Dhalgren

    I guess I’ll just keep my mouth shut on this one.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    My man

  • Watched Brawl in Cell Block 99 on Sunday. I’m ready to watch it again.

  • King Alvarez

    Definitely need to give it a rewatch

  • Cap_N_Jack

    7 Psychopaths has aged really, really well for me. On a first viewing it felt like Tarantino light. As I’ve rewatched it, it’s grown into a surprisingly poignant movie about finding your place in the world.

  • King Alvarez

    I need to rewatch that. It’s been a while. I remember not caring for 7 Psychos though. I’ll probably rewatch both though.

  • King Alvarez

    That was about it.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    On than scene where Mildred tells the ex not to hurt her was amazing.

  • King Alvarez

    I know right? She had genuine personality, even if it was ditzy. I wanted her to leave him immediately after walking in on him during that kitchen scene though.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    It looks pretty

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Yep. Perhaps not quite as good as In Bruges but still one of the best of the year.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I love that despite being a ditz of sorts, the movie makes you care about Penelope. Lesser films would have made her entirely two-dimensional.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    If nothing else, it has one of the best soundtracks of all time.

  • King Alvarez

    Unbreakable really grew on me over the years. So I may have to give The Village another sot.

  • King Alvarez

    I totally leaned towards someone else the entire time. The dad just seemed like a dick who never should have been able to get some 19 year old hottie.

  • King Alvarez

    Agreed, his being from The Wire immediately gave me some bg for him. Solid movie with some very minor flaws.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    That’s fair. I think what i like about Unbreakable and The Village is that the emotional arcs of each are bolstered by the twist but not reliant on it.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Plus, I like him so much from the Wire that I immediately read in a bunch of depth. I think Abbie Cornish was mis-cast (she was distractingly attractive compared to the main cast and the british accent felt oddly out of place), but again, these are as small of criticisms as one can have with a film. My immediate impression was that it was a fully developed masterpiece whose rough edges are mostly hidden by its focus on characters.

  • King Alvarez

    Possibly. I guess it was because I was expecting it going in, that I guessed it and ruined the movie for myself.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I didn’t think that at all. He seems genuinely broken by what happened to her just like Mildred. He’s just handling it in an entirely different way. I think the intention of the film is for the crime to have no leads: it will remain unsolved unless there is some sort of act of god. I’m really glad they didn’t resolve this side of hte plot. It would have felt disingenuous

  • King Alvarez

    I can see that. I wish that the new guy replacing Woody played a bigger role. His arrival was a little too on the nose the morning of. But man, that cast was huge.

  • They never resolve who raped and murdered the girl, but it seems like the clues pointed to her father. He is a drunk. He is violent towards women and family. He likes them young. He is a firebug. On the other hand, he probably would have been suspected and cleared early in the investigation. I wonder if he was intended to be a mirror, or just a red herring.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I still think it’s one where the twist is genuinely unimportant to the film.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Thanks! I think the only compelling point I’ve heard against the movie is that the black characters are more devices than actual characters (but there’s such a large cast that this seems like not that big of a deal).

  • King Alvarez

    I guessed The Village’s twist in the first 5 minutes. So that movie is a lost cause for me.

  • King Alvarez

    Covenant was a shitty remake of Prometheus with some enhanced mythology added to the mix. The best thing about that movie is the score.

  • King Alvarez

    Saw this last night. And this Opinion/Review is spot, fucking on.
    I enjoyed this movie immensely and found most of the characters to be equally likeable and unlikable in their own way. And by the end I don’t even know even remotely care if they change for the better.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    Physically, he’s right for the role but Sandler is a great actor….
    …when he tries.

  • Kemosabe 🦇

    Roth was trying to play something, Sandler just needed to be himself. I think he would have fit that role better. He’s the only thing that sticks out to me as well.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I legitimately wonder if sandler would’ve improved the film.
    Because roth is really my only issue with the film.

  • TheGreenMalice

    The opening scene, the tavern scene, the pastry scene… 80% of that film is near perfection.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I try and judge someone on their output and not their personality.
    Personally, he grates me something awful but he’s out there doing work.
    Which i respect.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Maybe. But there are a lot of people out there making good original films. He’s mashing tropes together with hipster stylings and then talking like he’s revolutionized the medium.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    But generic evil robot played by fassbender.
    Which is never a negative

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I’m just tired of everyone bitching about the lack of original films and then immediately attack landis because of a couple of flops.
    He may be a douche but he’s making original shit.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Fair. But Guy Pearce in old age make-up, petting the alien snake, unable to run away from spaceship rolling straight line, incomprehensible sci-fi that doesn’t lead anywhere, and generic evil robot.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I never started. My feeling is I can defend the work of an unpopular writer until I’m blue in the face (The Village, wildly underrated), but when you shoot your mouth of like Landis, I start actively rooting for you to fail. I’m petty like that.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I’m getting tired of defending him

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I mean, teaming with Max Landis was never going to be an upward move.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    That alien c-section scene is almost worth the price of admission

  • Sailor Monsoon

    How does he keep getting worse with every fucking movie??
    It’s almost impressive

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Fair, fair, but Prometheus came out and suddenly I was Obi Wan, screaming, ‘You were the chosen one!’

  • Sailor Monsoon

    Because I’ve seen alien 3, alien resurrection, alien vs predator and alien vs predator requiem

  • Cap_N_Jack

    A David Ayers Debacle?

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I don’t understand how you could not hate Prometheus. I mean, if you watched it with the sound off it would at least look nice, but man, that movie…

    I just don’t want him touching any more of his old films.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I don’t hate Prometheus
    But covenant…

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Still haven’t seen it, but Prometheus…

  • Sailor Monsoon

    The Martian was one of my favorite films of 2015

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I love vintage Scott…

  • Sailor Monsoon

    No
    People going to bay don’t deserve a warning
    They already know

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I also hate this idea.
    Love Scott but that’s a bad idea

  • Cap_N_Jack

    We should have ‘A Michael Bay Catastrophe’ warning on each poster for his films.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    And I’d fully support Blade Runner. I loved that movie with a passion I don’t fully understand (I may have liked it more than the original, though I feel weird admitting it).

    I also think there’s about as much chance that Blade Runner wins this year as there is that they have Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey as guest presenters.

    Also, did you hear Ridley Scott wants to make another Blade Runner. I hate this idea.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I don’t mind when he does it but “a spike lee joint” irks me something fierce

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I’d rather it be blade runner personally but i also wouldn’t be upset with dunkirk winning

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Yeah…and his whole ‘The Xth film by Quentin Tarantino’ pisses me off in his work. He’s good at some things, but his films are often too long and he’s not God’s gift to film-goers.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    When he has the main character look straight into the camera and say to the audience “this is my masterpiece” he’s taken subtlety behind the shed to get raped by Rottweilers

  • Cap_N_Jack

    It should be. I mean, I’d support Dunkirk for best picture (while not my favorite of the year, it’s a truly magnificent film and I think it’d be a good best picture).

  • Cap_N_Jack

    You are not wrong. Again, tense and brilliant. But then that ending segment is just so unsubtle and makes the movie a basic hero vs. villain thing.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    Me too but it needs to be for directing.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I can definitely see that but that tavern scene is grade A filmmaking

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Yeah, it’s pretty bad. I dunno, that movie starts out as a tense, dialogue based black comedy. Then somewhere towards the end it becomes a much loopier comedy which never quite fits to me. But again, just one guy’s useless opinion.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I think every part of that film is his best thing
    With the exception of eli roths performance.
    Which sticks out like a sore thumb

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I’m about ready for Nolan to get an Oscar but maybe that’s just me.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Really? I think the first segment could be his best work but the movie as a whole probably doesn’t crock top three.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    That’s a hard one for me because i think The Shape of Water is as important but in a much more subtle way. I wouldn’t be upset if either won.
    Because brawl in cell block 99 definitely won’t be nominated

  • Sailor Monsoon

    I think inglourious basterds is his best work and you need to watch synecdoche new york again my friend.
    It’s arguably the best film this decade.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I would put 90s Tarantino at about the same level as him, but I can’t remember being as involved with any of Tarantino’s recent output as I was with In Bruges and Three Billboards. Sorkin is of course amazing. Kauffman is good…but requires a good director to make his stuff work.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    Yes.
    I’d put Tarantino, Sorkin and Kauffman ahead of him in terms of writing ability but he’s definitely in the conversation of the best writers working today

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Did you agree with the Tarantino comparison? Whenever people rave about QT, I think of McDonagh.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Thanks immensely. I’ll be broken up if this doesn’t get best screenplay.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    Great write up and i agree

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