Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (UK-US, 2017)

Several levels of desperation

Three Billboards is one of the glut of ‘awards’ movies that fill the cinemas in the early months of the year to take advantage of the publicity garnered by the Oscars and BAFTAs. The idea that these are the best films of the year, often middle brow and never blockbusters, shows the one-eyed perspective of cultural commentators as they are usually all English language films. Pity the rest of the world who can’t hope to compete with Anglo Saxon culture!

Three Billboards is, however, good in the sense I enjoyed it and there were moments that were absolutely riveting. The performances are excellent, Martin McDonagh’s direction and script are great. With one proviso, which we’ll come to, it probably is one of the best American films produced last year.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred who places contentious statements on billboards in order to get justice for her murdered daughter. Police chief (Woody Harrelson) is the focus of her ire. One of his deputies, Sam Rockwell, is a racist and not fit to wear an officer’s uniform. The set-up is clear but McDonagh then sets about challenging our preconceptions, much derived from generic expectations, and offers depth to the characterisation. He also, typically of melodrama, over-exaggerates to the extent that Rockwell’s character is barely believable.

So what’s the problem with the film? SPOILERS AHEAD! Rockwell’s Dixon, despite being extremely racist, is redeemed when he helps Mildred. I thought the catalyst for this was weak, a letter from the now deceased police chief, but nevertheless thought it worked in the melodramatic framework. However, as Zeba Blay says in Huffington Post:

‘[The] disconnect between (mostly white) viewers who see Dixon’s having tortured a black man as a character quirk, a shorthand for anger and sadness, and (black) viewers like Denby, who can’t let go of this character quirk in order to root for the character, lies at the center of what makes the award-season success of “Three Billboards” so fascinating.

For a black audience Rockwell’s racism is far less likely to be forgiven when the character redeems himself because using racism as a signifier of weakness downplays its power. I think this is a fair comment and McDonagh’s defence weak:

“That ambiguity is exactly what I was going for in it. So it’s not a surprise, I think, and it’s nothing I can’t happily defend at any stage. I think it’s a really good film, and I think often the backlash is kind of a knee-jerk reaction maybe. And I think certainly in time — not right now, in time — the heart of the film will definitely be seen as something that’s deserving to be recognized.” (also in HuffPo article)

To describe a black person’s reaction to Dixon as ‘knee-jerk’ suggests McDonagh doesn’t understand how racism affects black people as does his self-congratulary contention that ‘the movie says “an awful lot” about race and policing’  I think it says more about white treatment of race than race itself.

However, this is not a reason not to see the film, which I think is very fine but with the qualification that it’s racial politics are, at the very least, contentious.

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