Barbed black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is “a film better thought or talked about than a story worth feeling”, says MacDara Conroy
Martin McDonagh, the Anglo-Irish David Mamet, will be taking the Pledge to his trophy cabinet this week after his third film, with the mouthful of a title Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, cleaned up at last weekend’s Golden Globes. Eschewing the odd-couple verbal sparring of In Bruges and the acerbic Hollywood satire of Seven Psychopaths for the darkness of small-town America — Coen Brothers territory, more or less, or Flannery O’Connor — Three Billboards seems both perfectly suited for awards season, and a total outlier in its bleak black comedy being pitched presumably a little too dark for American tastes. But maybe it’s exactly the kind of film America needs right now, even if it’s one more successful in theme than it is in plot.
Frances McDormand won this year’s Best Actress Golden Globe for her portrayal of a grieving mother who takes unconventional steps to bring the law to account over the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. Mildred Hayes chooses her words carefully, ensuring each is appropriately barbed — whether on the three roadside billboards she rents on the outskirts of her small midwestern town, or in conversation with the target of her ire, Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his motley crew, among them McDonagh regular (and character actor par excellence) Željko Ivanek.
In public, it’s a battle of wits between the respected policeman and the woman everyone talks about behind her back. And both sides, particularly Mildred, play up to those roles in the faces they wear outwardly. She most certainly does not suffer fools gladly — whether the parish priest (Nick Searcy), or the lovesick barfly (Peter Dinklage) — which lends itself to many a moment of tense laughter. In private, however, their opposition is more measured, each grasping at an understanding of where the other is coming from quite early on. It leads to one one of the film’s more heartrending scenes — following a riotous altercation in a dentist’s office — as harsh reality suspends their game, for lack of a better word.
Such moments are fleeting, however, in a film that’s much more comfortable behind a mask of cynical detachment, and where stereotypes and tropes stand in for characters. The plot thickens when sheriff’s deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) — a childish, racist and dangerous oaf (read: Trump voter) — is goaded into violent retaliation against Mildred and those appearing to support her. Sensing the tide turn, Mildred is forced to respond with more drastic measures, raising the stakes to something more like a bombastic action movie than a rural drama. There is a certain frisson to writer-director McDonagh’s clash of styles here, but that’s the head overruling the heart; by that point, it’s a film better thought or talked about than a story worth feeling.
There are certainly things that the viewer should be feeling, but much is lost in the execution. Even Mildred’s grief and pent-up rage, which should be at the centre of the story, is pat emotional shorthand. At the same time, what are we to make of McDonagh’s treatment of his more benign simple folk — such as the new woman in the life of Mildred’s ex (Samara Weaving), a socially awkward animal lover whose only crime seems to be that she’s young, pretty and not exactly worldly wise — when he gives Rockwell’s vile deputy a stirring third-act redemption arc? Is there any real sympathy for the people in this story, or are they simply cheap laughs, or pieces to be moved about in some sort of literary board game? In spite of the nuanced, genuine performances from McDormand and Harrelson in particular, McDonagh doesn’t give much of a reason to believe the former.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in selected Irish cinemas on Friday January 12th