music friday: 1972

by request: three billboards outside ebbing, missouri (martin mcdonagh, 2017)

It's easy to point out what is great about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as is evidenced by its 7 Oscar nominations (and not in categories like Special Effects ... the film got 3 acting nominations, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture, among others). The acting nominations, in particular, are worthy ones. Frances McDormand is the emotional core of the movie, while Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson will likely cancel each other out for Best Supporting Actor. McDormand's Mildred Hayes is fired up, at times unlikeable, in just the ways that resonate today when women are fighting battles that should have been won long ago.

While I was unimpressed by McDonagh's first film as a director, Six Shooter (which won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short), I liked his feature debut, In Bruges, which was also carried by the acting, especially Brendan Gleeson. After that, Seven Psychopaths was a terrible disappointment, not because McDonagh emulated Tarantino but because he emulated bad Tarantino. Three Billboards is better than all of these.

A lot of people seem to have been transformed by the movie. I feel a bit funny, because I liked it quite a bit, but my reaction wasn't really emotional. So I'm puzzled by the reactions of others that I read on a Facebook thread I started. "Loved it but took me awhile to get my brain back." "Great movie, rough movie, and still working through the reactions/thoughts/feelings engendered by it. We talked about it much of the night last night and again several times today discussions have been triggered." "It definitely brings up complex emotions." "It blew me away!" "Startling and fine film."

None of these people mentioned the backlash that has formed against Three Billboards. Several writers have written powerful essays on the topic of the movie's approach to race, including Alison Willmore and Alyssa RosenbergHanif Abdurraqib was especially eloquent, speaking of Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist and abusive cop. Dixon's character arc is unique in the film, since it's pretty much the only such arc. As well-written and acted as Mildred Hayes is, she doesn't change much over the course of the movie, nor does Woody Harrelson's sheriff. But Dixon's character achieves the beginning of redemption. Yet, as Abdurraqib notes,

The first thing we learn about Dixon is that he was responsible for the torture of one (or more) of the town's black residents while questioning them. There are no details given, and the viewing audience doesn't actually see the torture, but the understanding is that Dixon has tortured black people and kept his job as a police officer....

The failures of the film are not in the performances of the actors, but rather in the script, which presents a conclusion that left me frustrated, given the way it turns a portion of its focus from a grieving and determined mother to the redemption of a racist and abusive police officer....

It is asking a lot of people to watch a story in which we root for a racist and abusive police officer in the name of his own redemption, but it is asking even more of the audience if Dixon himself does no actual work in the name of earning that redemption.... 

Black people in this movie largely exist as victims, seen and unseen, of the town's violence, and as I watched I found myself wondering why they existed there at all.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri absolutely crushes the things it is good at. McDormand is as good as she ever has been, and while there are problems with the character of Officer Dixon, it must be said that Sam Rockwell does wonders with the part. For many, the movie will elicit a strong emotional response. Whether that response is positive or negative depends on what you think of Dixon and the black characters of Ebbing. #485 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.



What do you think of Abdurraqib's critiques?

Steven Rubio

I think enough of them to include them here, but admittedly not enough to really change my opinion that this is a pretty good movie. Abdurraqib identifies reasons why it's not a great movie, and the issues need to be raised. I saw one interview where McDonagh said he was surprised people thought Dixon was on the road to redemption ... he said he was a racist asshole at the beginning, and a racist asshole at the end. In that case, why is Dixon so important in the film?

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