It didn’t have to be this way. In the hands of a better director or a better screenwriter, this could have been a really poignant story about grief and redemption. Instead it’s a melodramatic, sloppy, grim and empty husk of a movie with absolutely no idea what its thesis statement was. This has the stench of an Oscar-bait movie written on a time constraint, with some of the most awkwardly stilted dialogue, the most contrived coincidences and one of the most abrupt endings of 2017.
I just want to point out, first of all, that I am in full support of films without easily digestible morals or neatly packaged endings with closure. The risk of choosing not to spoon-feed your audience will pay off if you do it right. This film tried to do that, I think. The characters are flawed, because it’s not about who was in the right. But for a movie that doesn’t want easy answers, it sure does love those plot contrivances. Isn’t it convenient that Mildred (Frances McDormand) angrily told her daughter she hoped she’d get raped right before she got raped? Isn’t it convenient that Dixon (Sam Rockwell) happened to be in the police station after hours as it was being set on fire? And what are the odds he’d end up in the exact same hospital room as the man he threw out of a window? And what are the odds that Dixon happened to overhear a rapist brag about raping a girl and setting her on fire, sounding suspiciously similar to what happened to Mildred’s daughter? I have my doubts that a rapist would admit that so casually in a bar, but this is the same character who decided to enter Mildred’s gift shop and tell her that he didn’t kill her daughter but that he would have if given the opportunity. And it turned out he didn’t do it! What are the odds? I guess this is a man who just likes to put himself on suspect lists for attention.
There’s a difference between writing characters who are complex and writing characters who are inconsistent. Martin McDonagh never quite grasps this. McDormand’s character does little more than make a series of destructive decisions, espouse poorly conceived metaphors in her endless monologue-ing, inflict a drill upon her dentist, and vent to a CGI fawn in a truly baffling and corny scene in a lame attempt to show her softer side. (The fawn represents, I don’t know, innocence lost?) The movie starts as this cat-and-mouse battle between her and the police chief the billboards are directed at, who, in an incredibly petty move, decides to pay in advance to keep them up for another month and commit suicide right in the midst of this chaos in order to put yet another target on Mildred’s back. I think this was meant to be charming.
Some of the laziest exposition I’ve ever heard was the sudden phoning in of the fact that the lovable racist idiot lives with his mother not because he’s a pathetic alcoholic who can’t take care of himself, but because his father died and he needed to take care of her. Instead of writing a believable arc and a solid reason for him to want to become a better person and less racist, this movie hastily wrote in that, by the way, he’s a good guy, deep down- without actually showing us anything before he gets set on fire. Screenwriting 101: show don’t tell. And if we’re going to talk about racism and a redemption arc for racist cops, why relegate the only three black characters of note to about two lines of dialogue each? You can’t acknowledge that racism exists in the beginning of the movie and then only barely address it afterward. It’s lazy. It’s patting yourself on the back for being progressive without actually doing anything. How dare this movie have the gall to exploit the actual systemic racism in America’s police force for awards without saying a single thing about it? It’s easy. It’s award bait. It’s palatable and unchallenging to the presumed white audience.
This is a very cold and hollow movie- it tries to be a dark comedy but it just comes across as cruel and soulless, and on top of that it was entirely aimless. I’m glad Sam Rockwell is getting the attention he deserves, but I wish it wasn’t for this.