Scattered Thoughts on Three Billboards

In preparation for the Oscars, Erin and I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri last night, and, uh, well.

Three Billboards is a bit of a trainwreck, and I confess to being surprised that it’s done as well in non-Oscars awards ceremonies as it has. This is not exactly a new observation — lots of people have gotten angry about Three Billboards recently. Much of the controversy centers around the fact that Sam Rockwell’s character is a racist, violent cop who undergoes a quasi-redemptive arc despite not being the focus of the film. I think these criticisms are valid or, at the very least, worth listening to: while I’m not opposed to someone depicting the redemption of a dirty cop, I think it would need to be handled with a little more deftness and focus than is on display here.  (To be fair, “redemption” is probably not the right word for the arc he’s given, but “goes from being the clear antagonist of the piece to the character given the most interiority and with whom we are most supposed to sympathize” takes too long to say.) But what annoyed me most about Three Billboards is not just that it casually mentions that Rockwell’s character probably tortured a black man in prison, and then expects us to care about his meltdown halfway through the film. No, what annoyed me most about Three Billboards is that it’s just not a very good movie.

The dialogue sounds like it was written by a person who had sort of vaguely heard of human communication before, but had never actually experienced it himself. (Spoilers and examples here.) The general tone of the movie flits wildly between “serious look at a complicated, tragic situation” and “wacky Coen Brothers comedy,” and was never particularly good at either of those things. It tries to do far too many things, and in trying to comment on: police inaction w/r/t sexual assault; police brutality; structural racism; homophobia; prejudice against people with dwarfism*; domestic violence; and probably some other things, it managed to just be fairly offensive across the board, all to no particular point nor purpose. So instead of, say, a dark and unsparing look at grief in rural America, you get Frances McDormand giving a nonsensical monologue about Crips, Bloods and the Catholic Church.

The movie is trying, I think, to paint an Unflinching Portrait of Real People in Rural America, and any such project is necessarily going to be messy. Real people, wherever they live, are messy and complicated and say and do silly and bad things — real people don’t fit into comfortable narratives terribly well. Further, problems in real life are not neatly slotted into categories – that is, you don’t wake up one day and deal with the Racist Problems, and then deal with the Problems of Modern Policing on a different day. Everything is tangled up in everything else, and so I don’t mean to suggest that any movie about social issues needs to be solely one-issue. But this movie bites off far more than it can chew. Also, and I don’t want to lean on this too hard, and I don’t know too much about Martin McDonagh, but I question whether an Irish director and playwright with no obvious connection to Missouri is exactly the right person to tackle the Real Truths of Rural Missouri. I’d feel a lot better about this movie if it was written by Gillian Flynn.

also at one point a bad CGI deer walks by the billboards, and frances mcdormand talks to it and asks it if it is trying to make her believe in reincarnation, and while i guess i don’t know very much about deer, i feel like i have seen deer in movies before that are not bad CGI, so i imagine there had to be some other way to shoot that scene, like maybe there is a professional hollywood deer-wrangler you can hire to wrangle some deer such that they’ll stand in a field for a few minutes for your movie, or maybe, if deer cannot be made to stand in front of cameras near actors, the director could have just shot some real-life nature footage of an actual deer and spliced it into the scene in some way – i don’t know, maybe there was no other way to do the deer scene and i am just armchair-directoring this situation, i don’t want to be one of those guys who complains about problems with movies or videogames or w/e and offers “simple” solutions that are actually impossibly complicated, like, you can’t just add multiplayer to No Man’s Sky in thirty minutes, dude, but anyway the bad CGI deer just really didn’t do it for me and i feel like, had i been in charge of making Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, i would not have featured an embarrassingly bad CGI deer in what was intended to be an emotional scene

Anyway, this isn’t to say there’s nothing to like about Three Billboards – there are some good comedic moments, and Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson all did pretty good jobs with the flummoxing scripts they were given. If Sam Rockwell wins Best Supporting Actor, I won’t say it’s undeserved – Rockwell is always fantastic, and his performance isn’t the problem with the character’s arc. Also, between this and Get Out, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on Caleb Landry Jones, who gets many of the best lines. But Three Billboards is easily the weakest of the 2018 Oscar Movies I’ve seen thus far. It’s also probably going to win Best Picture.

To that end, the Best Picture category this year serves as a reminder of how silly the exercise of picking a Best Picture really is. If I was in charge of picking the Best Picture (from the 6/9 nominees I’ve seen), I’d probably narrow it down to Dunkirk and Lady Bird, and listen: that is a nonsense question. Dunkirk and Lady Bird have almost nothing in common, and it’s very silly to try to compare the two. This obsessive desire to try to rank art is annoying at best and harmful at worst, and we should abolish the Oscars entirely as the self-aggrandizing nonsense they are.

In the meantime, we should ask that the Academy at least have the good sense not to give its highest award to a meandering piece of obnoxious gibberish. Anything but Three Billboards for Best Picture, friends.

*Between this and In Bruges (which is a very good movie), I would love to read somebody better-educated on the subject talk about McDonagh’s usage of people with dwarfism as quasi-punchlines.

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