When 2017 came to an end, it felt like the year was as flammable as a tinderbox. The political and social upheaval had been enormous, where the mistreatment of racial and sexual minorities and, most powerfully, women themselves was finally moving from a conversation to a roar. In the midst of it came Martin McDonough’s award-winning ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, a thunderstorm of the film that went straight for audience’s throats. For some, it was the right film at the right time, a fierce and angry piece that captured its fire and anger. For others, like myself, it was grossly out of step, woefully pitched and uncomfortably outdated. On first viewing, I was pretty much repulsed by this film and everything it seemed to say. For this home entertainment review though, I decided to give it a second try, to come to it on its own terms and see whether I could meet it halfway.
As a concept, it’s an absolute kicker, and seems at first glance absolutely perfect for right now - Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand), still crippled with grief from the rape and murder of her daughter and frustrated by the lack of police action, rents three unused billboards outside of the town of Ebbing and uses them to directly question the inaction of local police and their chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). To have such a premise appear in the middle of the #MeToo movement seemed absolutely perfect: a woman who has suffered at the hands of men enacting fiery revenge against them, taking the narrative into her own hands and threatening to burn it down. And for its first act, despite many initial hiccups, that seems to be the film we’re watching, centred around a powerhouse turn from McDormand that, despite my dislike for the film, I can’t deny is one hell of a performance.
It’s a rickety beginning though, with McDonough peppering his sharp dialogue and characters with uncomfortably unstable racial commentary and an unclear moral compass. Characters of colour and minorities are made the butts of jokes or recipients of violence from the get-go by the racist police department, especially the combustible and damaged Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). You expect there to be a turn around, for the film to set up these thematic threads in order to say something about bigotry in America, but McDonough (a writer who loves to provoke with no clear reason for it) never delivers that turn, instead leaving those characters mostly ill-defined (and in some cases, not even named), acts of horrible violence to hang with no consequence and, strangest of all, snatching the film from Mildred’s hands and making it a redemption story for Dixon. If his actions and slurs weren’t so extreme, there could be something there, but when he throws a person out of a window for no reason and is essentially given a slap on the wrist, that redemption arc loses any chance of success.
Dixon is the biggest issue with that plagues ‘Three Billboards’, despite Rockwell putting in a satisfactory (at best) performance. Dixon is the poster boy for Trump’s America - ignorant, violent, bigoted and unrepentant - and to have a film that should be about its female protagonist and her story suddenly ditch her and favour him instead so that we can humanise Trump’s America, feels grossly out of line. We came to see Mildred get revenge for her daughter’s terrible death, and her astounding speeches in the first act suggest that this is what we’re going to get. We didn’t come to see some racist bigot cop get a redemption arc, take over her narrative and essentially fix her problem for her.
We came to see Mildred get revenge for her daughter’s terrible death... (not) to see some racist bigot cop get a redemption arc, take over her narrative and essentially fix her problem for her.
This is just one of the many, many issues that bugs me about ‘Three Billboards’, a mean-spirited and ugly mess with everything going for it but nothing to show. Female characters apart from Mildred barely exist, characters of colour speak in crippling clichés, its ultimate statement is scattered and unclear, its treatment of domestic violence is awful, the cancer narrative around Chief Willoughby is flat-out bizarre and the almost-solution feels like a shoddy act of emotional manipulation on the audience. What makes these flaws so irritating is the great film this could have been, but Martin McDonough deals with blunt blows, straight masculine urges and writing often crippled by its own cleverness. It feels like a white casually liberal dream come true, a film that acts progressive without actually progressing, talking about the uncomfortable but in a language that makes them still feel entirely at peace, a soothing middle-class balm to difficult conversations. However, for myself (and I can only really speak for myself), this is less a match to set that tinderbox on fire, the way Mildred promises so passionately to do, but the snuff to put that flame.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘Three Billboards’ might seem like an odd choice for a 4K UHD release, but the film does benefit from the format in its own way. The film was finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate, so this 2160p 2.39:1 transfer upscales it to 4K resolution. This added resolution offers much more specific detail in the image and a stability throughout, but what really surprised me was how striking the colours were. ‘Three Billboards’ is a beautifully shot film, and the HDR brings out the careful colours in the photography, making them richer. The upgrade over the included 1080p Blu-ray disc is slight, but its certainly a superior presentation. In terms of audio, both the 4K UHD and the Blu-ray employ the same DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. Again, this isn’t a film demanding an Atmos track, and the audio here is sturdy and dependable, offering a consistently well-balanced audio experience.
All the extras are included on the Blu-ray disc, the chief of which is ‘Crucify 'Em: The Making of Three Billboards' (29:30), a pretty solid if standard behind-the-scenes featurette. McDonough discusses the origins of the film, while the cast discuss working with his very specific dialogue and uncompromising themes. They all speak so eloquently about the intentions behind the film (especially McDormand), only making the failure of the film more frustrating. We also get McDonough’s Oscar-winning short film ‘Six Shooter’ (26:30) from 2004, a selection of deleted scenes, an image gallery and the theatrical trailers.