Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri generated a lot of heat during award season after it was released in 2017. It won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture Drama, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. It scored again at the SAG Awards, winning Best Cast in addition to awards for Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. The BAFTAs were another big win. It only got two Academy Awards in the end (for McDormand and Rockwell), but it had been considered to be a top contender for Best Picture and a potential spoiler for Best Original Screenplay.
Despite all the accolades, Three Billboards is a garbage movie.
A Plot Rundown of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The movie begins with McDormand as Mildred Hayes driving by three decrepit billboards in her hometown, pausing, considering, and coming to a conclusion before driving on. A light bulb might as well go off over her head for all the subtlety of this scene. She then shows up at the office renting those billboards to insult the manager while she makes a down payment–but she notices a bug stuck upside down on the windowsill and helps it right itself again so we know she can’t be all bad (side note: barf).
Spoilers from here on out. If you want to avoid, skip to the next section. The three titular billboards call out the Chief of Police, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for not having any leads in the brutal murder of Mildred’s daughter months after her death. Naturally, they cause quite a stir and attract the ire of a dimwitted and racist police officer named Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Willoughby is dying of pancreatic cancer and the town doesn’t take kindly to Mildred’s attack, but it does get the folksy Chief to come out and speak with her.
Mildred violently attacks a dentist who publicly disapproved of her billboards and leaves him with a hole in his thumbnail, but once the attack is over the incident is played for laughs so it doesn’t matter, right? Willoughby is tired of dying so he has a great day with his wife neglecting their kids (next to a river, no less). His wife gets drunk and asks him to feed the horses when they get home. Instead, he goes out to the barn and kills himself without even closing the door so the horses get loose. His wife will probably forever feel guilty that she didn’t feed the damn horses herself, but whatever, right?
Mildred gets a letter from Willoughby explaining that his suicide had nothing to do with her and he paid for another month of her billboards–not because he thinks she was right or to show that there are no hard feelings. Nope, he does it because he thinks making sure the billboards stay up will cause her more trouble and that just tickles him. This prompts Mildred to flash back to an argument she had with her daughter (presumably right before her murder) that ended with her telling her daughter that she hopes she gets raped and killed. Even for a movie that has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, this is incredibly on-the-nose.
Dixon is somehow the last person to hear about Willoughby’s suicide even though he’s been sitting in the police station in full view of grieving police officers for who knows how long. He doesn’t take the news well and storms across the street to the advertising agency to viciously assault the manager and throw him out the window. On his way back into the police station, Dixon insults an African American man on the sidewalk. Unfortunately for Dixon, this man turns out to be the new Chief replacing Willoughby and he doesn’t take kindly to assault on civilians or insults in the street (crazy, right?). Dixon is fired, but the new Chief turns out to be incompetent because he only collects Dixon’s badge–not his keys to the station. This is convenient because another officer calls Dixon later to say Willoughby wrote him a letter and Dixon can pick it up when they close the station that night because apparently police in Ebbing take nights off.
That night, the billboards are burned down. Mildred retaliates by throwing Molotov cocktails into the police station, which makes the plot twist about Dixon’s letter from Willoughby super convenient because unbeknownst to her he’s inside having a teary moment reading the letter in which Willoughby tells Dixon he’s a good man and a great cop even though there is literally no evidence to support these claims (he also advises Dixon to let go of hate as if he’s Yoda or something). Also, apparently earbuds are powerful enough to block out the sound of explosions because Dixon has no idea the building is going up around him until it’s already a raging fire. He grabs the case file for Mildred’s daughter and jumps out the window completely covered in flames. Super conveniently, a townsperson played by Peter Dinklage just happens to be walking by and he helps put out the flames, then covers for Mildred (who he has an inexplicable crush on) by telling police officers he and Mildred were together on a date when they stumbled on the fire together. He blackmails Mildred into going on a real date with him because isn’t that how all great romances start?
For some reason, doctors put Dixon, wrapped up like a mummy, in the same hospital room as the manager he threw out the window earlier. Exactly how crowded is this hospital, anyway? The manager shows kindness to the poor burned man, who reveals himself as Dixon and apologizes for throwing him out a window. The manager responds by bringing Dixon his orange juice and putting in a sippy straw because #Forgiveness or something.
After Dixon is discharged (looking surprisingly okay considering the scope of the fire and the bandages he was covered with), he finds himself in a bar at a table next to a creepy guy who threatened Mildred earlier. The guy is bragging about a crime that sounds just like the murder of Mildred’s daughter. Dixon goes outside and gets the guy’s license plate because of course the car is right there and he knows exactly which one it is. Then Dixon picks a fight with the guy to scratch him and get his DNA under his fingernails for evidence collection.
Unsurprisingly, Mildred’s date is a disaster and Peter Dinklage walks out on her because he somehow only just realized she’s a dumpster fire of a person. Mildred’s ex-husband is there because apparently there’s only one restaurant in town, and he admits to burning the billboards.
Dixon tells Mildred about his lead but it turns out the guy is not a match for whoever killed her daughter. Not only that, he wasn’t even in the country at the time of the murder. Mildred and Dixon talk and decide the man is guilty of something so they should probably go to his home in Idaho and kill him. They set off on the road and express reservations about killing the guy. Instead of turning around, they decide to make up their mind on the way.
Why Is It Garbage?
To be fair, a lot of people were speaking out about Three Billboards being problematic even as it was winning awards. Most of the conversation centered around the inexplicable redemption storyline Dixon gets and the way the movie toys with racial issues while completely sidelining all its black characters and treating them like tokens. Those concerns are extremely valid, but I feel like just how shitty the screenplay is got lost in all the other complaints. I mentioned that this movie has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer but it bears repeating. Not only that, but the plotting is extremely ham-handed.
Are we really supposed to believe a letter from Willoughby made Dixon want to be a better man? Would that letter have had the same impact if Mildred was an African American woman? And why are all the African American characters forced to stay on the periphery? Mildred’s African American boss at the gift shop where she works (why is there a gift shop in Ebbing, anyway?) is arrested on trumped-up charges so Dixon can mess with Mildred but the storyline goes nowhere because her story doesn’t matter a bit. She appears later just so you know she’s out of jail, but it feels like no one (least of all her) has anything to say about her unjust arrest. It’s ludicrous.
There are no answers to these questions or any of the myriad others raised by the shoddy screenplay because writer-director Martin McDonagh (who is not American) seems to only be interested in poking at larger themes without having to do the dirty work of wrestling with them.
The cast is great, but even they fail to make sense of McDonagh’s shitty, shitty script.
Long Story Short
Three Billboards toys at larger themes and ideas without actually trying to deal with them. Its handling of race is insulting because it’s filtered through white characters. The screenplay is so badly written that it contorts everything into unbelievable knots and McDonagh handles everything with a jarring lack of subtlety.
Want more? Here’s why La La Land is a garbage movie.