Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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.

Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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

 

 


Also published on Medium.

  1. The more I think about this film the more I hate it. Contrived, dumb and cynical. Nothing the characters did or said rang true. The rape and murder of the daughter was simply a device to move the plot forward. You got not sense of that character, the relationship she had with Frances McDormand or any real sense of grief in the family. Left a bad taste in my mouth. He’s obviously going for a Fargo vibe but the characters in Fargo and their stupid actions were wholly believable, and there was genuine warmth in that movie. I didn’t get any warmth here, only overwritten dialogue and too many silly coincidences. Also too many cheap gags at the expense of dwarfs and people of colour.

  2. While I actually agree with most all of what you say there I didn't have as much of a problem with it. I saw it as a melodrama with elements of farce. The performances were good and the script was funny. You can forgive a lot when you've got those last two.

  3. Can’t fault the performances, really, but I thought the script was bad. He’s not half as clever or funny as he thinks he is.

  4. Caleb Landry Jones is good in this. He was also good in The Florida Project. I prefer him when he's not playing creepy drug freaks and the like.

  5. It was immeasurably better than Seven Psychopaths but perhaps that's still damning with feint praise! Did you like In Bruges?

  6. I like In Bruges. It’s an amusing little oddity. Best thing he’s done by far but even that felt dated at the time of release, like the script was written around the time of Pulp Fiction and left in a drawer for 10 years. Seven Psychopaths is awful rubbish.

  7. I enjoyed it. The main problem I had with it was how did Sam Rockwell become a cop? His character was not a million miles removed from Officer Doofy in the first Scary Movie film. Too ridiculous.

    From looking at my facebook feed over the last few weeks I'm beginning to think it's the most streamed film ever.

  8. "tender", "heartbreaking" – i don't buy that. At no point did I see the death of the daughter as anything but a plot device.

  9. He was doing the same dumb sleazy weirdo character he plays in every film

  10. <!—->

    Bernie Lomax said:

    "tender", "heartbreaking" – i don't buy that. At no point did I see the death of the daughter as anything but a plot device.Click to expand…

    There were other tender moments though. I didn't mind that the murder/rape wasn't the focus. More how the characters in town sorted out their differences etc.

  11. It’s not that the murder wasn’t the focus that I have a problem with. It’s the way he used the fact to provoke a reaction. Several characters mention that she was raped while dying, that’s a harsh image and the fact that we don’t know anything about this character other than that makes it feel a bit like a cheap attempt to get a reaction from the audience. It just left a bad taste in my mouth.

  12. Take Twin Peaks, for example. Laura is murdered before the show begins so we don’t get to spend any time with her, but we get to know the character through nothing more than the other characters descriptions of her and a bit of home movie footage – you get a sense that this was a person with a life and that makes it all the more affecting. I did not get that with the daughter in Three Billboards. As I said it felt like she was nothing more than a plot device.

  13. I mean if you’re going to base your film around the rape and murder of a character, at least give that character the respect of having a life lived or some kind of depth, otherwise how is she any different from, say, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction?

    Maybe, I’m reading to much into this…!

  14. Yeah but that's not what the movie is about, it's just a springboard for what happens. It seems cheap if you focus on it but they seem to purposely not make it the focus. The bitterness and hurt that people carry around that causes all the violence and rage had to be explained somehow and you know a struggling business or a broken marriage on their own wouldn't have had the same cinematic impact.

    But Twin Peaks is a good comparison. Of course the murder of Laura Palmer is a massive thing but so much other sinister stuff is forgotten, swept under the carpet or a blind-eye turned and the richness of the story is about how the community of the town come around to each other for support and get by.

  15. <!—->

    hermie said:

    Yeah but that's not what the movie is about, it's just a springboard for what happens. It seems cheap if you focus on it but they seem to purposely not make it the focus. The bitterness and hurt that people carry around that causes all the violence and rage had to be explained somehow and you know a struggling business or a broken marriage on their own wouldn't have had the same cinematic impact.

    But Twin Peaks is a good comparison. Of course the murder of Laura Palmer is a massive thing but so much other sinister stuff is forgotten, swept under the carpet or a blind-eye turned and the richness of the story is about how the community of the town come around to each other for support and get by.Click to expand…

    I guess we won’t see eye to eye on this, but I’m glad we can find common ground on some points.

  16. <!—->

    Bernie Lomax said:

    I guess we won’t see eye to eye on this, but I’m glad we can find common ground on some points.Click to expand…

    Yeah I'm not really explaining myself that well. It's a really divisive movie. I've had some fun discussions about it these past two days. I think ultimately if you buy the (admittedly) flimsy premise and allow yourself to get taken along for the ride you'll enjoy it but if you don't every subsequent implausible piece of action only adds to your annoyance. For me Frances McDormand's performance on it's own makes it worth the watch.

  17. It's a pretty mad film, i'm surprised how well it's being reviewed considering it's basically a whole load of "give me an oscar liberal Hollywood" tropes lined up in a row and then ignored because Frances McDormand's character is like "fuck this, I went off the deep end months ago". I thought it was great!

  18. i enjoyed it. there was definitely a lot of nonsense though. not least of which was frances mac's frequent ultraviolence just being shrugged off by everyone including the cops. i liked zoo girl.

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