The setting of the latest Martin McDonough film, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, is unlike any in the history of cinema, science fiction included. Whether set on the surface of the moon or in the halls of a high school, every film takes place in an alternate reality of its own construction, and Three Billboards is no exception. There is, of course, no such town as Ebbing, Missouri, nor must there be; countless films transpire in invented locations that feel, in the end, like visitable ones. The process through which a movie’s content registers as believable is complicated and mysterious, yet this is not the case with Three Billboards. Whereas McDonough’s debut, In Bruges, transformed an obscure Belgian city into a “fairytale place,” enchanting a nonfictional location through the prestidigitation of fiction, Three Billboards uses fiction to disenchant a Midwestern town that never existed at all. The viewer is left with an object lesson in how not to create a fictional world, a film in which each successive scene undoes the work of its predecessor, an incoherent frustration of stories, tones, and themes whose sum total amounts to nil. The setting of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is nowhere, and never has a nowhere felt so perfect in its emptiness.
The basic premise of the film is a solid one, a promising conceit squandered. After the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, Angela, go unsolved, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three unused billboards to criticize the inaction of local law enforcement. “RAPED WHILE DYING,” the first billboard reads. Second billboard: “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” Third one: “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Girding this initial dramatic framework are issues of gender violence, ineffective policing, and the imperfect means through which private grief is publicly and formally displayed. Each of these subjects could justify an entire film unto itself, but here they act as the base for a house of cards “held together” by artless contrivance instead of considered design. Soon, we are introduced to the implicated Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who cannot be fully reviled because he has terminal cancer. He is assisted by the doltish Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a character who vacillates between murderous rage and saintly benevolence whenever it suits the film. Even Mildred is more “complicated” than she appears: As a convenient flashback reveals, she wished that her daughter would be raped and murdered, right before her daughter was raped and murdered. Like a restaurant that serves endless courses of uncooked food, Three Billboards introduces characters and situations without ever expending the necessary time or energy to analyze them. Its contrived complexities are simply lazy.
The film’s directionless plot is no less of an unimaginative contrivance, a series of questionable coincidences in a world without rules or consequences. The most egregious of these is an overheard conversation in a bar, when Dixon listens to a stranger passing through town brag about committing a murder similar to Angela’s. As an isolated incident in a more successful film, a deus ex machina of this effect could be forgiven, but amongst the disconnected scenes and plot holes of Three Billboards, it feels like a point of no return, an artist’s unconscious acknowledgement of the sheer lack of thought and creativity that went into his work. The Ebbing, Missouri of McDonough’s imagination exists in an America where a woman can be arrested for biting a dentist but not for fire-bombing a police station, where disgraced cops can beat and throw citizens from second-story windows to no punishment at all. Sons pull knives on their fathers as they strangle their mothers, before the whole conflict is dropped like a boring conversation. And while it may well have been McDonough’s intent to synthesize the modes of dark satire and social critique, the end result comes across as neither of the above, a proliferation of loaded content that makes minimal emotional, thematic, or logical sense in conjunction.
It would be too easy to attribute these inadequacies to McDonough’s position as a British filmmaker, particularly when one considers the rich history of foreign-born artists who have tackled the American experience. (The paintings of David Hockney come to mind.) Instead, McDonough’s issues seem firstly generational, secondly geographical. The racial politics and foul language of Three Billboards feel like transgressive products of a bygone era, a period, like the mid-90s, when lesser directors could establish a career on aping Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. More than a foreigner’s misreading of American culture, Three Billboards plays like a cosmopolitan artist’s misreading of middle America, wherein the coastal liberal’s worst fantasies of rural life–misogyny, racism, overalls–are brought reductively to pseudo-life. Through this lens, it is no surprise that Three Billboards has resonated so profoundly with the upper echelons of Hollywood, the same racist misogynists who turned a blind eye to Harvey Weinstein and his ilk for decades. By assembling this collection of over-the-hill 90s actors to perform working class cosplay, McDonough has gifted Hollywood both an opportunity to feel superior and an escape to a less self-reflective time. He has created a film every bit as confused, congratulatory, and regressive as the industry that produced it.
Midway through Three Billboards, Mildred is visited by a Catholic priest, who she subjects to a monologue of astounding arbitrariness and derangement. In it, Mildred uses the example of Los Angeles street gangs, “those Crips and those Bloods,” to argue how all priests share culpability for the pervasive sexual abuses of the Church. Like the rest of Three Billboards, the speech comes across as bizarrely dated, slightly racist, and working in service of yet another idea that the film can’t begin to support. The monologue is as relevant to the rest of the story as Mildred’s pointless dinner date with a little person (Peter Dinklage), her ex-husband’s ditzy twenty-something girlfriend, or her encounter with a computer-generated deer. “You’re pretty but you ain’t her,” Mildred tells the fake animal, meaning the deer can symbolize her daughter as much as it wants–it will never be her. In the end, Three Billboards is a lot like that fake deer, a symbol that will never exist in any meaningful way. It’s ugly as fuck, but it’s not America. How come?
Final Strawberry Verdict: .75 Strawberries out of 5