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