Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri begins with the reveal that Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand) has rented three massive billboards that sit unattended in a field where town folk occasionally drive past. She pays Red (played by Caleb Landry Jones), the owner of the billboards, to post a three-part message on a red backdrop. Her message is directed at the local chief of police (played by Woody Harrelson) and states a simple question–it’s been a year, why haven’t you found the man who raped and killed my daughter? The billboards catch the attention of the entire town and create a series of devastating events.
Despite all the talented actors involved and a unique story that initially grabs hold, it winds up being a gravely unsatisfying film. McDonagh’s prior works, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, have devoted followings. His latest is obviously meant to be his Fargo, with misty opening imagery and a Carter Burwell score establishing this as his nod to the Coen Brothers. Just two months ago, George Clooney demonstrated with his failed Suburbicon how hard it is to make a faux Coen Brothers movie. McDonagh can stage a memorable scene and craft a vivid character but he’s better at chaos and glib carnage than anything else.
Somewhere at the mid-point, I became numb from all the pummeling, foul language, sucker punches and cruelty. Despite an attempt to contrast the moments of compassion from the violence, it’s the uglier moments that stick. While I’m not squeamish and Three Billboards… isn’t especially gory, the casual sadism and relentless vulgarity wore me down.
Movies such as this one are so relentlessly downbeat and overstuffed with brutality and suffering that they become predictable. The real surprise comes from a whole scene passing without someone getting shot, punched, kicked or all of the above. If the message is as simple as “sin begets sin” (as someone states onscreen), it’s made early on. McDongh’s film reminded me of all the post-Pulp Fiction, Tarantino-wannabes that littered the 1990s. The lesson there: writing self consciously hip and crude dialogue, mixed with detached bloodshed, doesn’t make your movie the next Reservoir Dogs.
McDormand’s performance is full of fire and pain. Whereas McDormand was sweet and earthy in Fargo, she’s ferocious here. Her character is as disagreeable as everyone else’s but there is an undeniable power to her work. Harrelson isn’t in the movie very much but adds layers to his crucial supporting turn. Sam Rockwell is a fine actor but tends to play every scene in the same key.
Peter Dinklage co-stars as Mildred’s friend and is referred often onscreen as “the town midget.” Although Dinklage does what he can with the role, he’s too good and accomplished an actor to take such a demeaning role. Considering how commanding and gifted he is, I thought he’d be past roles like this by now.
Three Billboards… doesn’t have an ending but instead comes to a stopping point. McDonagh is also a playwright and his conclusion might have worked on stage. As the finish of his film, it feels like a cop-out. Like Paul Haggis’ Crash, McDonagh intends to show us the surprising good within bad people and how good people sometimes do very bad things. Unfortunately, it’s the bruises, tumbles out the window and Rockwell boogying to ABBA that will stay with me. This movie doesn’t do the warm and fuzzy stuff very well.