(2017—Director: Martin McDonagh)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Billboard #1: “Raped while dying”
Billboard #2: “And still no arrests?”
Billboard #3: “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
“I’m doing everything I can to track him down, Mrs. Hayes. I don’t think them billboards is very fair.” … “The time it’s took you to come out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl’s probably being butchered right now.” — Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand)
Potential spoilers below
One would not take long to note British-Irish playwright and writer-director Martin McDonagh’s knack for Tarantino-like sharp writing with comedic touches, combined with equally-comedic yet stark and unforgiving violence. His two features so far—2008’s Oscar-nominated In Bruges and 2012’s underrated Seven Psychopaths—are, without a doubt, for mature viewers only. Yet I admire both of them for giving audiences fascinating and full-blooded characters caught in the middle of bizarre conflicts. It disappoints, then, that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (hereafter referred to as Three Billboards) sees McDonagh taking on a less comfortable and less comedic route, resulting in a mean-spirited and unsatisfying crime saga.
In the otherwise uneventful town of the title, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) grieves for her late daughter, an unfortunate victim of rape and murder. The police have received no leads in the months since the tragedy, so Mildred steps up to reinvigorate their investigation efforts via public advertising. In her signs, she directs a cold message to the town’s admired Sheriff William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Mildred’s efforts to capture her daughter’s rapist-murderer not only ruin her hometown’s quiet status quo, but trigger the unstable temperament of Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Sheriff Willoughby’s racist second-in-command.
After two viewings, I no longer hesitate to declare Three Billboards as the weakest and least enjoyable of writer-director Martin McDonagh’s three films so far, despite offering one of 2017’s stronger acting ensembles. Driven by her character’s deep grief and callous indignation, Frances McDormand gives Three Billboards its acting and emotional rock. The movie becomes arguably her most prominent big-screen turn since 2008’s Burn After Reading (or, for animation fans, the spectacular third Madagascar film from 2012). Her revenge quest, however, does not stray more than a few steps beyond pettish strikes back at the authorities who lack the evidence to resolve the crime.
On the opposite end of McDormand’s relentless search for justice is Woody Harrelson, whose worn-down and sympathetic police chief caps off Harrelson’s impressive 2017 (which includes War for the Planet of the Apes and The Glass Castle). His character’s unfortunate early departure makes way for Sam Rockwell’s unhinged, racist, and bumbling policeman with a domineering mother (played with expert and likeable grouchiness by Sandy Martin). Rockwell has received, and will continue to receive, much praise for his performance, but I find it difficult to pinpoint a runaway Oscar-winning performance in his screentime, especially with a character as unlikeable as Officer Dixon. I struggle to buy his change of heart in the latter parts of Three Billboards, when joblessness and lasting scars have become his primary motives for action.
Beyond this acting trio, I enjoy little of the British-Irish McDonagh’s perspective on unsolved crime and police corruption and neglect in backwoods, “flyover” America. One of 2017’s most distasteful scenes is when a local Catholic priest (Nick Searcy) stops by Mildred’s home and she compares the sexual misconduct of Catholic priests with the violent mayhem of the Crips and Bloods gangs of Los Angeles, right in front of him and her son (Lucas Hedges). The priest’s silence and disappearance for the rest of Three Billboards comes off as vindicating Mildred’s hurtful and self-righteous words towards him and all of Catholicism. In a different movie, McDormand’s Mildred would take on the responsibility of doing the criminal investigation work the police are not doing, and of having the sensitive compassion local community leaders may have under-stressed in recent times. That shows room for heartfelt and cathartic redemption. Resorting to an outdated and expensive advertisement scheme to “keep a case in the public eye” and railing against anyone opposing her does not.
Three Billboards ultimately amounts to a frustrating watch, even with its impressive acting turns. The more noble characters get belittled or sidelined (Lucas Hedges in particular), while the characters with deep flaws gain little redemption. Neutral characters like the African-American minor roles have little to do. These include the token replacement police chief (Clarke Peters) tasked with firing Sam Rockwell, while the remaining African-American man (Darrell Britt-Gibson) and woman (Amanda Warren) in town end up going on a date to close off their respective screentimes. For a writer-director whose two features so far have been equal portions of funny, violent, and even reflective, Martin McDonagh should have provided the same in Three Billboards. What remains instead is an unpleasant and perhaps detached view of a region whose real-life inhabitants prefer to believe that they foster a much better community than the moral wasteland Martin McDonagh depicts in Ebbing, Missouri.
(Parental Note: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has been rated R by the MPAA “for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.” It has also been rated U (Universal) by the BBFC for “very strong language, strong violence,” and “sex references”.)