Playwright turned screenwriter Martin McDonagh is three movies into his feature film career – “In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths” and his latest “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. While each film has their differences they also also have their similarities. All three are black comedy crime pictures and each prominently feature McDonagh’s brash writing style. You can decide whether that last part is a good thing or not.
McDonagh’s inspiration for “Three Billboards” came as he was driving in southeastern United States and noticed some billboards speaking to an unsolved crime. He began filling in his own elements to the story and “Three Billboards” was born. As he began penning the script two characters were written with specific performers in mind. The lead character of Mildred was written for Frances McDormand and key supporting character Dixon was written for Sam Rockwell.
The story begins seven years after the brutal rape and murder of a teenaged girl around Ebbing, Missouri. The girl’s mother Mildred (McDormand), angered by the sheriff department’s lack of progress on the case, rents three abandoned billboards just outside of town calling out the local authorities. The billboards read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests?” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
Mildred’s billboards spark the ire of the townsfolk including Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), his dense and racist deputy Dixon (Rockwell), and even her depressed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). But Mildred (a fitting reflection of McDonagh’s abrasive writing style) pushes forward which leads to a series of conflicts that make up a bulk of McDonagh’s problematic story.
“Three Billboards” is such a mixed bag. McDonagh wildly swings from absurdly goofy to deeply emotional with no real gauge for tone. A scene of oddball humor can shift to a scene of startling violence on a whim. Often the characters are the biggest victims. One minute a man is brutally beating another man and punching a woman in the face. Only a few scenes later we are asked to buy into his moral transformation. Even Mildred suffers from McDonagh’s erratic treatment. She’s an inspirational crusader and a sympathetic mother. She’s also a verbally abusive, dysfunctional parent and can sometimes be needlessly hateful and vile. McDormand goes all in and her performance is solid, but her character (like most in the film) is all over the map.
Funny enough the movie is its most effective when it turns down the volume and focuses on the quieter dramatic moments. Many of these involve Woody Harrelson, an actor often known for big and showy. His Sheriff Willoughby is probably the film’s most tempered character but he’s not immune to McDonagh’s occasional jarring dialogue. And it seems we are meant to be at least a little sympathetic towards him, but to do so the movie ignores some gaping moral holes and expects us to do the same. Sorry, I can’t.
Several other things keep “Three Billboards” from reaching the potential it teases. There’s McDonagh’s weird vision of small town America. He nails how the effects of a horrible tragedy can ripple through a rural tight-knit community. And visually the North Carolina location is a nice stand-in for the fictional town of Ebbing. But his wonky cast consists of racists, sexists, bigots, abusers, child molesters, and several other offensive classes of miscreants. Is this his rural perception? I’ll take a Coen brother’s version over this one any day.
And then you have McDonagh’s insistence on being blatantly and often pointlessly vulgar and crass. I get that it’s his thing, but forcing it into the bulk of the dialogue becomes annoying and distracting. I have no problem with a writer bringing their own style and sensibility, but it’s never a good thing when you can feel the writer constantly impressing himself on his material. Mix that with the seismic tonal shifts, uneven and often incomprehensible characters, and an overbearing desire to be as un-PC as possible regardless of how it effects the story. The result is a frustrating movie built on a good idea and featuring some strong performances yet undermined by problems too big to dismiss. Ultimately it’s a film that acts like it has something to say, but you quickly learn it’s little more than an empty hull. And for a movie about a mother seeking justice, it’s certainly has little to offer.
VERDICT – 1.5 STARS
“I hope you get raped.”
I kind of phased out after this line. Dark comedy or not, who talks like this…to their daughter? I don’t care if mother-daughter fight. For a movie that I believe is (trying to) ground itself in realism, that line was not.
I was a little higher but only really because of the acting work. As a person who really enjoys Seven Psychopaths, this story struggles mightily with tone, and trying to make characters sympathetic in their arcs. Didn’t work for me and I know it didn’t work for you.
REALLY didn’t work for me my friend. I found myself constantly put off by it. So much of McDonagh’s dialogue seems more dedicated to his brash style than adding anything meaningful to the story or characters.
And let me ask you this, other than some scars from a fire, did you sense any real consequences for these people? Among all the racists, bigots, and abusers I don’t remember much reckoning. Sure, a film isn’t required to do that, but it goes back to what I called the movie – an empty hull.
Very good point. Didn’t sense any consequences for the actions of these people.
I like and understand what 70srichard is alluding to with regards to consequences seemingly being more internal (at least, that is what I think he’s referring to), but I’m with you. Some of the consequences needed to be fully realized; I believe if they were, perhaps the end arcs would have felt more fulfilling.
Exactly. Instead there are no meaningful repercussions. And to be honest, the movie felt set in some alternate universe. None of these people felt all that real to me – in their speech (as you alluded to earlier), in their actions, or in their motivations. Almost other-worldly.
Can we also talk about what the gorgeous Abbie Cornish is doing in boonie Ebbing with an Australian accent and married with two kids to a character like Harrelson’s? LMAO, that was bizarre.
Bwahahaha! I know! Just another thing we are supposed to buy. But man you’re right – GORGEOUS! 😉
As always you are articulate in your evaluation and I can clearly see and understand your reservations. I have read and heard similar criticism of the tonal shifts in the film. While the style of the writing has the history of the director behind it, I have to look at it in context of the story.
The world is populated with imperfect people. They are not always at their best in good circumstances, this story has few of those. The people are confronting the worst moments in their lives. So the vulgarity may fit many of those situations. I appreciated that the plot took a different path on a regular basis and that , what was momentarily amusing one moment turned ominous the next, and vice versa.
This is a story about uncontrolled grief and rage. The moral consequences of indulging that rage are confronted a number of times with each of the characters. I did not have a problem with characters altering their behavior from one minute to another because something has almost always intervened to change their perceptions. Mildred and Dixon are flawed people, but they are multidimensional characters despite the stereotyping that might be tempting.
There is never a consistent perspective on the three main characters because they are never consistent in their emotions. Who could be under these circumstances. No one is the hero and no one is just a villain. They are driven by the events that take place.
I know you have explained your reservations, these are just a few thoughts about those points. This film was much different from what I expected, and it goes in directions that surprised me but did not befuddle me.
Great comments and I appreciate the thoughtful points. I’ll say this about the vulgarity, I could go along with your point if the vulgarity was only seen in those worst moments. But they aren’t. Take the sheriff’s day at the lake with his family. He’s have a conversation with his young daughters and then starts casually swearing as if talking to his bar buddies. Many instances like that which feel pointless to me.
As for Dixon, I didn’t feel he ever faced much in terms of consequences. We learn he has brutally tortured a black man, brutally beaten a man, violently assaulted women, and is simply fired. But then when he reads a sentimental letter he is transformed. No arrest, no prison, no real consequence. Same for the sheriff who we are supposed so sympathize with (on some level) yet he allowed this type of brutality and racism.
Ultimately I think there is a lot here that the movie could dig into. But McDonagh seems uninterested. And as a movie about justice for a crime, there is certainly a lack of justice for many in the film.
Ouch! You certainly didn’t hold back, man. As you know, I had similar issues as yourself but I managed to cling to the good dramatic material which just about saved the film for me. That said, I can understand your rating. This was how Seven Psychopaths had me feeling.
Man this think infuriated me. The biggest frustration came from knowing there was a good story foundation, a good cast, and plenty of themes worth exploring. But for me McDonagh squanders it all. And there are so many logical and moral holes in these characters. And in a movie about a mother seeking justice, there is certainly little justice for many. I just had a hard time buying into any character regardless of how well the actors did.
Oh, and how about Peter Dinklage? I’m assuming he was cast just so McDonagh could squeeze in a few dopey “midget” jokes. Ugh, I’m getting worked up again. 🙂
Yeah, I thought the treatment of Dinklage was particularly bad. I didn’t find it funny at all. The jokes in general didn’t work for me, especially the racist ones. It’s not just that, though, it that it’s obvious that McDonagh is trying to funny and it’s just not. At all!! As much as I liked the dramatic stuff going on and the performances were good, it’s really surprising that this could end up a major Oscar contender now!
Guaranteed Oscar contender man. Maybe even the frontrunner. It blows my mind. Dinklage was just a punching bag. But you’re right, it wasn’t funny. And I’m no PC pusher. You can poke fun at things. But as you said, the jokes simply aren’t funny. And they are rarely given any context. Just bad.
Yeah, absolutely agreed on the humour. As it goes, I have a very twisted sense of humour and jokes of this nature aren’t often a problem for me but, like you say, they have to be funny. And these just aren’t. That’s what makes them offensive. They’re shoehorned in and, much like Seven Psychopaths, they force a laugh rather than earn them.
I love your last line ‘ “force a laugh rather than earn them”. That’s why they can easily be taken (fairly or unfairly) as offensive. There is little meaning behind them.
Damn! This is one of my favorites of the year. I’m sorry it didn’t work for you.
I found myself thoroughly frustrated (and at times bewildered) throughout the entire thing. There is such a good framework but for me McDonagh smothered it out.
“A frustrating movie built on a good idea…” excellent summary. I get it that it’s supposed to be dark comedy and therefore might not always make sense. Still, I just couldn’t get on board with the pendulum swings back and forth between brutal violence with no consequences and sad, dramatic scenes that ultimately had no payoff. Given all the awards this movie has won so far, I feared the problem might have been me! I can see now I’m not the only one. Thanks for sharing.
Definitely not just you. I think you word it well. I really like dark comedies. This thing isn’t funny. And any commentary it may trying to make is either paper-thin or impossible to take seriously.
Great point! I also had issue with some violent acts that had no consequences. I thought this very lazy writing but also considered that I must have missed something. It would seem that I didn’t miss anything and that the writing wasn’t up to scratch.
Nah man. I don’t think you missed a thing.
The more I think on it, the more I think I’ve been very generous to the film. I’ll be a bit miffed if this wins a Best Screenplay Oscar (which I have a sneaky feeling that it just might do) 😦
I think it might too. And for it to win over something like “Molly’s Game” would be a travesty.
I haven’t caught that yet but Aaron Sorkin is always a sign of quality writing.
Wow, yours is the first review I’ve seen go negative on this. Sadly, I still can’t see it because it’s not playing anywhere close by.
Oh that stinks. Release schedules drive me nuts. I still haven’t seen Phantom Thread, Hostiles, or The Post simply because they’ve opened nowhere in my state!
As for “Three Billboards”, it drove me nuts. I kept waiting for it to come together because there is a strong framework in place. Sadly it ever does. It’s one huge mess that wastes a tremendous ensemble. I know there are many people who love it, but for me the flaws are huge.
I can’t say my reaction was as extreme as yours, but I definitely see where you’re coming from. As a fan of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, I was a little let down by this movie. Needlessly cruel with very little reasoning or payoff behind it all. Excellent write-up, Keith.
Thanks man. I hated to come down so hard on this thing. I really did. But it left me so frustrated. The ingredients are there but McDonagh flubs it up. I truly wish McDonagh could have gotten himself out of the way and gave more thought to his story. And perhaps make these characters feel of this world.
Very honest review as always. I haven’t seen this yet, but I’ll still be giving it a watch as I really enjoyed Seven Psychopaths and McDonagh’s past work.
Thanks Liam. I know this movie has a lot of support heading into the Oscars, but I just don’t see it. And what’s so frustrating is that it wastes a tremendous ensemble cast. The performances are solid by McDonagh either has nothing to say about the issues he plays with or he simply doesn’t know how to say it here.
Nice review Keith 🙂 I could feel your passion in the writing, and lack thereof in the film haha 🙂 I kinda just skimmed through the review for fear of spoilers but I could get a sense that the tonal shifts were awkward and the execution is controversial. I’ll be watching it soon when it opens in a few days time so I’ll let ya know how I think.
Thanks so much. It’s a messy review. I had a hard time really digging into my issues without spoiling it. It just annoys me because there is such potential and a tremendous cast. But there is little to no balance, and McDonagh’s vain attempts at humor only highlight the more troubling aspects of his story.
I’ll be anxious to hear what you think. I know there are some who really love it.
This is one of the most well thought negative reviews of this film that I’ve read. I actually agree with you on everything you call out here and many of your points also bugged me — a LOT.
I really appreciate your words because I really wrestled with this picture. A cast this good and a great inspiration had me pretty enthusiastic (even though I’m not a big McDonagh fan). But I found myself really frustrated with this film. For me it squandered it all. But as awards season has shown, I’m definitely in the minority.
I’m completely in agreement with you on this one; I don’t get the fuss about it at all, and your last point sums up my feelings to this perfectly: “Ultimately it’s a film that acts like it has something to say, but you quickly learn it’s little more than an empty hull. And for a movie about a mother seeking justice, it’s certainly has little to offer.” (I said pretty much the same thing on Letterboxd after watching it last weekend – in fact it has barely anything worthwhile to say about cancer, rape and murder, institutionalised racism or anything else that has been thrown into the plot in the vain hope of lending some weight to the movie either.) That’s two films in a row by McDonagh that have flattered to deceive, and I think In Bruges – though fairly decent – has been massively overrated.
I would say “Amen” to every thing you said. McDonagh stirs a lot of things up to the surface but basically leaves them floating. I hate to say this, but he seems completely uninterested in addressing any of it. And while I genuinely do respect those who love this film, I find some of the supportive explanations to be real stretches.
Yes, it’s like the issues here are being used as vessels for unfunny jokes about small people or for Sam Rockwell’s clowning, when really they deserve more than that; I don’t think that the film is completely without any depth or anything, because there are some quite well-observed scenes (the one with McDormand’s character being a bit more sympathetic to Harrelson’s, for example), but it’s the way McDonagh puts it all together that I don’t like.
Those quieter moments are by far the film’s best. Sadly there aren’t enough moments where it is quiet. And even some of those moments are railroaded by McDonagh’s writing.
Great review! I came into the movie with an open-mind despite all of the controversy, particularly over Sam Rockwell’s character, but in the end didn’t understand what the hype was about. The story started out as Mildred rightfully raging against the system. Her guilt and wants for justice was understandable. But then so much of the movie becomes vulgar for vulgar’s sake, acting as an excuse for the characters to act the way they do, and honestly, letting the story spiral out of control.
YES! I honestly kept myself away from most of the controversy until I saw the film. And then it took me days to really put together my thoughts. The longer I thought about it the more frustrated I grew. And you’re right, the story starts with a strong foundation. But McDonagh seems okay with letting it fall into a mire of forced, pointless vulgarity and people behaving horribly with no real stakes or repercussions. Worse, I didn’t feel McDonagh had anything to say about any of it.
Your review is very different from the vast majority out there, Keith. And that’s why I like it. You never feel the need to follow the general opinion. It is your own opinion and a very well expressed one.