Since its release overseas, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has swiftly established itself as the divisive film of this year’s awards season. Its proponents see it as complex, carefully-judged reflection on justice; naysayers decry the racist undertones of the redemptive arc granted to its unapologetically racist cop character (Sam Rockwell).
I find myself somewhere in the middle. Despite boasting genuinely impressive performances from Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and, yes, Rockwell, the film possesses little of the sophistication it suggests. Writer/director Martin McDonagh has gone for something akin to his brother’s Calvary, except directed at crime and law enforcement rather than Catholicism. But where Calvary employed its actors as cryptic, anti-realistic symbols, Three Billboards can’t resist attempting to flesh them out as characters.
It’s that sort of radical sympathy that creates the film’s best scenes, as in a heartbreaking interview room confrontation between McDormand and Harrelson. That sympathy undercuts any kind of coherent thesis, particularly when applied to Rockwell’s character. The real problem is that this is a film without anything particularly substantial to say; were it more precisely pitched as a black comedy (like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths), then I doubt the film would be attracting the same vitriol.