Annie Warren reviews the 5-time BAFTA award winner
The day after I went to see Frozen, I decided I’d use my free afternoon to go and see Thee Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri. As the winner of no less than five BAFTA awards (Outstanding British film, Best original screenplay, Best film, Frances McDormand for Best actress and Sam Rockwell for Best supporting actor) and nominated for a further four, it wasn’t as if I really had a choice in the matter. It seemed that rape and murder were becoming the theme of the week.
Directed by Martin McDonagh, the plot takes place in the fictional and pessimistically named town of Ebbing in (you guessed it) Missouri. It tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) in hot pursuit of justice for her teenage daughter who was raped and murdered seven months previously. She rents three billboards just outside of town on which she writes a provocative message to the police department (specifically to Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson), who have not made any arrests and don’t seem to be making any progress on the case. It’s small-town story of violence, revenge and (maybe) forgiveness with a liberal sprinkling of swearing.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film and was enraptured for the entirety of its 105 minutes. I laughed out loud, spent a lot of time hiding behind my hands, and cried like a baby into my Percy Pigs. The performances from Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson are worthy of standing ovation, the cinematography is stunning and the plot is enthralling and darkly funny. It even has a great soundtrack. I absolutely think you should go and see this film – but it is not beyond criticism.
I find the film to obtuse be on issues of race. I don’t think that paying lip service to issues around racism in America as part of the character arcs of our (white) protagonists is in any way laudable. This issue was exemplified in the locking up of Denise, a secondary black character, for the vast majority of the film in order to upset Mildred – and then bringing her back ten minutes before the end of the film by having her bounce out of a car with a smile on her face as if she’s been on holiday in Cancun rather than incarcerated as a punishment for her so-called friend’s actions. She embodies a character whose only purpose, then, is to prove how not racist Mildred is – or was that an ‘I’m not racist – I have a black friend’ joke that I’m not on board with?
It should be noted that kind of flawed representation doesn’t exclusively happen around issues of race, but also to a lesser extent to most secondary characters. It also happens to the character of Red (Caleb Landry Jones), who, after he has served his purpose of renting out the billboards, being beaten and thrown out of a window by the hateful police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and then forgiving him by way of a glass of orange juice, is never heard from or seen on screen again. This tendency to use characters as turning points in the protagonists’ moral journeys is an annoying niggle that steals credibility from the film as a whole.
Most other criticism to do with race has been centred on the pretence that the audience is supposed to sympathise with Dixon, who is a racist, homophobic, slow-on-the-uptake and overly-violent character who some feel is redeemed at the end of the film. I disagree – Dixon remains racist, stupid and violent right to the bitter end. I see no redemption here, nor really in any other character. While secondary characters remain frustratingly one-dimensional, I would say that the real strength of this film lies in its protagonists, who are portrayed as complex and flawed human beings with a deep capacity for both love and hate. The film itself is neutral and doesn’t ask the audience to see them in any particular way at all. I would argue that whether the characters are redeemed or not is entirely up to you – and it is a real shame that this is a courtesy that was not extended to other characters.