- Product Rating -

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

| November 17, 2017

In my eyes, there are two types of people when it comes to grief: those who become angry and those who become sad. The flood of emotions in the aftermath of a tragedy is fascinating in how contradictory it can be in terms of one’s own personality as well as the persona they project upon the world, and Martin McDonagh’s previous work has thrived off of the seemingly antithetical ways in which people behave under heightened experiences. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is, in a way, what he has been working towards in terms of drama, and yet the product is less than the sum of its parts. It’s in short bursts great and sometimes quite funny, but it’s also a mess in terms of tone and scope, flirting with aspects of sociopolitical satire and then swimming back from the deep end closer to the shallower part of the pool.

Taking place in the titular location, McDonagh’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) latest follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a woman whose daughter Angela (Kathryn Newtown) was raped and murdered seven months earlier. Given that the local law enforcement, consisting of Sheriff William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), hasn’t solved the crime nor even pursued it enough to create the illusion of justice, Mildred rents out three billboards on a stretch of rural road where the crime occurred. Her actions instigate varying degrees of controversy, her intent to avenge her daughter proving to implicate others and test the worldviews of herself and those around her. Taking inspiration from vigilante and rape-revenge tales, it’s something of a maddening movie, often undoing its own greatness over and over again.

What fuels the first 30 minutes or so is what by and large fuels the overall film. Powered by a electric performance from McDormand, it’s in turns darkly comical and perversely inspiring, the protagonist’s no-nonsense, truth-to-power rhetoric a great example of how to write a realistic woman with a great amount of agency and fundamental flaws at her core. McDonagh’s auteurist dialogue generally carries on here, a mashup of silliness and sardonicism that runs over, under, and through its characters as they duel with one another using the guns that are their respective tongues. Nevertheless, he maintains a great deal of respect for those involved and understands the humanity of them; this is again brought by through strong work from the aforementioned supporting players. In terms of aesthetics, the cinematography courtesy of Ben Davis (Kick-Ass, Doctor Strange) is dingy yet warm, often making good use of highlighted, bold lighting choices confined to the environments depicted onscreen.

Where Three Billboards begins to topple over is at around the halfway mark of its slightly-too-long 115-minute runtime. Here, McDonagh’s attempts to refer to hot-button topics feel like afterthoughts, with issues such as police brutality and racism being thrown about but never really looked at. There’s an ironic racism voiced through members of the police department that never comes to a head, instead played off as inconsequential jokes. The script makes allusions to institutionalized discrimination against Mildred’s friend Denise (Amanda Warren), a sidelined character, and these themes feel sorely lacking in their realization overall. McDonagh is at times going for social satire and at other times going for straight drama, and that’s fine, but the balance between these two is more like a rickety see-saw as opposed to something that’s been evenly looked at.

Similarly, the film tries to shift points of view at various times throughout the second half, but it fails to revisit or even mention characters on a consistent basis, therefore minimizing the presence of virtually every person at least one time. This even includes Mildred herself, whose central conflict is handed over to someone else before their respective journeys merge together awkwardly in a resolution that is otherwise effectively understated. Again, the actors are who help so much of Three Billboards, save for Lucas Hedges as McDormand’s son. Like in Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird, he sticks out with his stilted delivery and unnatural aspects of his physical performance.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starts off as one of the better movies of 2017 before its unpolished screenplay drags it back towards mediocrity. It’s good in bits and pieces, but it’s one of the most notable disappointments in recent months as a whole. It’s odd, too; the puzzle pieces are there an old wooden table provides a sturdy base for it all, but the glue to hold it together is just so watered down. The sharp tongue of Martin McDonagh feels to have gone from acidic to basic, and he doesn’t seem to have the ability to fulfill his own ambitions here. What struck me the most, though, was that it at times felt derivative of 2014’s Calvary, a terrific film written and directed by his brother John Michael McDonagh. I guess we all have to get our inspiration somewhere.

About the Author:

Senior year film student at Columbia College Chicago, Hollywood Film Festival pre-screener, and Best Social Media Presence for North Farmington High School's 2014 senior mock elections. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff".
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