“Looks like we got a war on our hands.”
It’s quite obvious from the onset that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri refuses to rely on entirely one-sided characterizations. The victims of this button-pushing stickler eventually become hostile, the assailants get what’s coming to them, and the macabre pendulum swings back and forth as this picture’s ticker takes the black comedy genre to its most extreme. By that definition, the film works because you won’t forget the insanity, the calculated depravity, or the shocking dramatic reveals. But that doesn’t mean the movie is successful either, proving that a handful of great scenes can’t make the film itself cohesive. Three Billboards has great parts living inside a junker with a piss poor paint job of a tone.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) takes the forgotten, unbeaten back road to her hillside home. Her hair’s let down and her gaze is steely all before lightning strikes. Mildred passes the titular three wind-battered billboards on the daily commute home, but on this day she’s struck with an idea: let’s rekindle the fire and stir the pot, shall we? It’s a brief but effective sequence showing the many levels of McDormand’s talent – we can literally see the wheels spinning in her head (and she adds a hard nail bite for good measure) – that leads to an even greater dramatic beat filtered through the welcomed exhale that comes from any decent comedy. What happened to Mildred and her family isn’t spilled out in the trailers, nor should it be here. Yet as a single mother to Robbie (Lucas Hedges) in a big ranch while her abusive ex Charlie (John Hawkes) runs around with a young woman more than half his age, you could probably guess the type of experience that’d have the weight to tear them this far apart. What’s lost is definitely gone but what’s done does not yet have a silver lining.
While this half-baked and demonstratively dour story drifts away into a nightmare of tonal inconsistency (when audiences like my own don’t know when to laugh, it means your joke ain’t all that hilarious), there are still very good and sometimes powerful performances from the cast. Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby, a well-respected man of the law and a pillar of the community. He is what people rightfully aspire to be. Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) lives with his mama, reads comics, drinks too much, and is known for his torturous racism and overall prejudice, taken out against the advertising schleprock Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones). Dixon is what these new wave of Missourians refuse to become. Meanwhile, Mildred’s advocacy to reopen a personal investigation becomes framed by the townsfolk as the smattering of Willoughby’s integrity. She willingly becomes the controversial face and the talk of this fictional small-town. Three Billboards has three unyielding characters played by three stalwart performers, but it also has no idea what to do with them, and even worse, how to make them seem the least bit real. They’d find more suitable work in the classifieds.
Given writer/director Martin McDonagh’s theater background, I can almost envision this film coming to fruition on the stage. Three Billboards commands a lot of its audience – at times it seems to be inviting us in for confrontational conversations followed by a crotch kick to a kid, a drill through a demented dentist’s thumb, finished with Molotov cocktails literally thrown against the establishment – yet the confines of cinema make this a film worthy of admiration and not of adoration. Important dramatic beats are missing. The searingly biting dialogue somehow feels sticky and slow, like a sapling’s maple syrup oozing out the pores, torched until nice and hard and effectively caramelized. And despite the film’s prescience for being written nearly 8 years ago, the issues Three Billboards brings up are systemically problematic and, in this story, forensically unsolvable. Even Mildred admits that the entire endeavor contains one fleeting, confused, punch-drunk possibility of hope. Maybe that signifies the strength of the human spirit. Or maybe it leans more towards one-trick writing. I still don’t understand why a movie with this much grim gravitas would rather run a bluff than play the full house it’s been given. Its cockiness and swagger cannot outwit the stupidity of its actions.
When I first saw McDonagh’s In Bruges back in 2008 – a film rife with expletives, bullets, perversion, and solemn sense of heaven and hell – I couldn’t believe what I just watched. While not a masterpiece, it’s still a great film, and one that grants its characters an unlimited grace period to change and shift and to grow. Three Billboards is the opposite by comparison. It’s a film about representation that’s only from a Caucasian POV. It’s a movie about a misogynistic culture that ultimately forgives and dares to redeem the worst of us. And most detrimental of all, Three Billboards doesn’t say anything more than what’s written out in big black font on blood-red signs. Many critics and pundits have been regaled by this tone-deaf, scrupulously made yet stupid movie, and I imagine history will be as kind to it as it’s been to Paul Haggis’ respectably imperfect 2004 picture Crash. At least that one knew what it wanted to be, where it wanted to go, and when it needed to end. The same can’t be said for Three Billboards.
“The whole thing is wrapped up through sheer stupidity.”
Rating: 2 out of 5