Sunday 18 March 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Martin McDonagh

Mostly I post about movies I like. Sometimes I dislike a movie so much that I feel have to post about it. Other times, I dislike one so much that I decide just to ignore it.

This was the case with writer-director Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (a great title, by the way. Although henceforth it will be shortened to Three Billboards). 

But the movie has received such acclaim that I've become rather annoyed, and decided to state my case for the record.

Let me start by saying that I thought Sam Rockwell's performance, as dumb-ass deputy Dixon, was outstanding, and I was delighted that he won an Oscar for it.

What's more, throughout most of the film I thought I was watching a masterpiece. It was hilarious, disturbing, emotionally complex... But then towards the end it fell apart so completely that the entire enterprise collapsed.

And revealed that the movie was a big bag of emptiness. It pretends that it is serious and deep and profound. Only to betray the audience by turning out to be shallow, phony and nothing but a gimmicky show-off piece of junk.

And this betrayal is utterly fatal because the movie needs to be serious and deep and profound, since it is dealing with such grave material.

It tells the story of Frances McDormand as Mildred, a mother dealing with guilt and grief after the horrible fate of her teenage daughter ("raped while dying").

It also delves deep into human suffering elsewhere, tenderly depicting the terminal illness and suicide of Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

This is such serious subject matter that you can't afford to fuck it up. But fuck it up Martin McDonagh does, and pretty spectacularly, too.

The movie crashes off the rails when Deputy Dixon is apparently released from hospital a week after being admitted with serious burns. And it fails beyond redemption when Dixon and Mildred set off together on a cross-country revenge spree.

They're going to kill this guy who they know was not the attacker of Mildred's daughter. But they've decided he's a rapist — plus he beat up Dixon in a bar fight — so they're going to kill him anyway. 

Or maybe they won't. 

Who knows?

Certainly not Martin McDonagh who seems to have forgotten the first rule of screenwriting. Movies are all about endings.  
Indeed, some people believe that you should start writing a movie with the ending and work your way backwards.

That sure as hell didn't happen here.

What Three Billboards does succeed in doing — laudably and superbly — is setting up characters whom we expect to be unlikable and unsympathetic, and then utterly reversing our feelings towards them. It does it first with Willoughby and then, in spades, with Dixon.

Indeed the characters in the film are excellent, and McDonagh's ability to write characters — and dialogue — are his great strengths. What's more, I entirely agree with McDonagh when he says (in this interview) "The character begins from the dialogue."

Which makes it all the more of a pity that the movie fails to live up to its promise. I think the problem is simply that McDonagh leaned too heavily on his skill at dialogue and character (honed in his stage plays) and did too little work on the plot.

Millions of people like, revere — even love — Three Billboards. I was about to make a crack that none of them are screenwriters, though...

However, I realised that I know this to not be true. My dear friend Rona Munro is an amazingly gifted screenwriter. And she adores Three Billboards.

So maybe I'm completely wrong.

But I don't think so.

(Image credits: Seven billboards at Imp Awards.)


  1. This one really doesn't appeal to me and I think McDonagh has more than a touch of the Emperor's New Clothes about him. All I will say is that I hope McDormand's acting is better than the hammy and irritating turn she gave when accepting her BAFTA award!

  2. Ah yes, Emperor's New Clothes indeed, though I do think he has considerable talent. As for McDormand, having now seen The Shape of Water for a second time, I really believe Sally Hawkins should have got the Oscar for best actress. Thanks for reading!