Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
A few years ago I had the privilege to watch a very funny film by first time director Martin McDonagh. In Bruges told the story of two hitmen hiding out in the city of Bruges in Belgium after one of their hits go awry. It was a fantastic dark comedy that rivaled Quintin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. It was a film that I had started to write about but the draft was lost in the pile of films that took priority over it. In Bruges was a great example of the type of unique wit McDonagh brings to film as a playwright. His films have an inherent play-like quality to them, which gives his films and stories a unique style that sets himself apart from other directors. In Bruges by far the simplest of McDonagh’s films, and in my opinion, his best work to date. The story manages to be sincere, but never to the point where it feels out of place with all of the comedy taking place around it. McDonagh’s follow up film, Seven Psychopaths, attempts to up the ante that McDonagh introduced with In Bruges. Seven Psychopaths is funny, but it lacks the heart from McDonagh’s previous film and is perhaps the weakest of his three films. Which brings us to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is a film in which it is clear McDonagh wants to make an attempt at a more serious, emotionally driven, story but also include the hallmark dark humor he is known for in his two previous films. It’s a film that due to its subject matter will perhaps get a lot of attention in the current awards season, but apart from that, the film fails to live up to the level of enjoyment found in McDonagh’s first film.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes a grieving mother months after her daughter is raped and killed on the side of a road in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. After months of no leads on her daughter’s case, the Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has seemingly given up on the case. Taking matters into her own hands Mildred purchases three billboards (on the same road her daughter was killed) bringing into question Willoughby’s choice to abandon the case and questioning his character in front of the entire town. The billboards cause an uproar as the town is split between compassion for Mildred and respect for Willoughby. This split in sentiments creates tension between the chief and the grieving mother. As the police push back against Midred questioning the character of their beloved leader, Mildred is forced to become increasingly vocal about the lack of resolution in her daughter’s case.
Every performance given in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a memorable one. Francis McDormand is certainly the focus of the film with her portrayal of the grieving Mildred Hayes. Even though McDormand’s character is the focus of the film I hesitate to say that this is one of her best performances I’ve seen from her. He character arc is relatively flat throughout the film and the only change to her character happens within the last few moments of the film. Most of the changes we see are either implied or cosmetic since there is only one flashback in the entire film. It’s a good thing that the changes are implied since it reduces the amount of unnecessary exposition in the film. However, Mildred’s grief is almost implied too much to the point that rarely comes across as grief. She is a woman who has shut herself off emotionally from everyone else and instead of even attempting to explain her actions or deal with her guilt and grief, she continues to focus on the billboards and antagonizing the police. I found that the real emotional weight of the film came from Woody Harrelson’s character. Chief Willoughby is a man between the rock of trying to do his job and manage his police force (specifically Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell), and the hard place that is Mildred Hayes. On top of this, he is a man battling cancer, which not only weighs heavily into how he interacts with Mildred, Dixon, and the rest of the town, but it also weighs heavily on his relationship with his family. As heavy as Mildred’s grief is (made all the more apparent by the flashback), Willoughby’s plight is felt much more throughout the film. While the performances are memorable, the film lacks any focus on one central character. McDonagh makes an attempt to balance three distinct stories that should intertwine with each other, but as a result, the motivations of each character are somewhat lost. It’s clear why Mildred wants justice for her daughter, but the film never addresses what Willoughby wants or what Dixon want as the story bounces in and out of their story arcs. It’s implied that Willoughby wants to maintain order in the town and that he wants just as much justice for Mildred’s daughter as Mildred does, but this idea is lost in Willoughby’s fight with cancer. Dixon is a horrible cop. He is overtly racist in a time when racism isn’t popular (it’s clear he’s been scolded for his frequent use of the n-word), and he is prone to outbursts of violence. The film later reveals that he struggled in the police academy, and it seems like this is all due to Dixon’s laziness, but in a later monologue from Willoughby, it is explained to the audience that Dixon carries a great deal of hatred in his heart. In the end, Dixon is given a redemptive arc as he catches a potential lead in the case and more or less apologizes for being such a horrible person. All of this comes after Willoughby’s monologue and feels unearned. Dixon throughout the film is shown beating a man within inches of his life, and then spewing racist remarks at a fellow black police officer, among countless other horrible acts. His arc feels less undeserved and more forced as a result of Willoughby’s words because McDonagh thought it was necessary for the story.
Where In Bruges felt more like a comedy than a serious drama, with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri it appears McDonagh wanted to make a film with more emotional weight than his previous films. This creates some awkward tonal shifts as the film progresses. There are countless comedic moments broken by sentimentality within the same scene. The film fails to adequately create purposeful emotion out of a film that still wants to be a comedy. Sam Rockwell is a good example of an actor who manages to do this successfully. As tonally inconsistent his redemption feels in the end, Rockwell as an actor manages to play the comedic center of the film while also having his moments of emotional depth once his personality and behaviors are explained by Willoughby. McDormand perhaps suffers the most from the tonal shifts. Her story is supposed to be sad and tragic but is constantly interrupted by out of place humor. In one scene, her ex-husband shows up threatening her over the billboards, and her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) jumps up to save her. There’s thick tension in the scene as we see this explosion from the ex-husband and Robbie that is broken by the ex-husband’s girlfriend coming into the house and awkwardly asking to use the bathroom. I’ll admit there was not a single joke in the film I didn’t laugh at, but this came as a detriment to the more serious moments. The laughter was almost always cut short by a character attempting to insert sadness or anger or fear into a scene. It proves that McDonagh succeeds when he is looking to make a funnier film than a dramatic one. There’s a scene with Mildred and Robbie in the car and he’s complaining to her about the billboards. At first, his tone sounds sarcastic, then it turns to anger, but the anger seems forced. It’s a scene meant to establish how the billboards and the attention are effecting Mildred’s family but lacks any of the emotional depth found in other parts of the film the anger never lands the way McDonagh intended it to. The scene ended and I didn’t care anymore about how the billboards effected Robbie than I did before the scene came. Another scene comes later in the film when Willoughby’s Wife, Anne (Abbie Cornish), visits Mildred at work. The dialogue is clunky, and again meant to evoke an emotional response, but feels sad only for how poorly acted out it is. It doesn’t help that Abbie Cornish’s accent changes a few times throughout the film. Is she British? Is she southern? Is she Australian? Who knows, and how did Willoughby end up with a wife like that in Ebbing, Missouri?
When the film ended, I felt mostly confused by what I had watched. I felt bad for laughing as much as I did instead of feeling bad for the characters. It was a vastly more enjoyable film than Seven Psychopaths, but even that film has just as much emotion and drama as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri had. I really wanted to love this film, but the unclear motivations for its characters and the sharp tonal shifts created a film that I only ended up liking. It proves that McDonagh has a talent for comedic films and can find better success inducing an emotional response when he doesn’t try too hard. That being said, I would not discourage anyone from seeing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.