Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – 2017
Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Željko Ivanek, Nick Searcy
There is a smell that pervades most of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, even as they spend much of the time trying to work against convention. It smells of judgement in the way that someone who lives in a coastal urban area might judge those who live in the flyby states. In this thought process, people who live in Missouri are more than a little racist, homophobic and shallow. Not all of them, of course. There has to be people in the town to judge them as such.
One such person in this story is Mildred Hayes (McDormand), whose daughter was tortured, burned and raped almost a year ago. And she hasn’t heard anything from the police force of her town in almost 7 months. This spurs her into the action of hiring the three billboards of the title. On these billboards are the sequential messages “Raped while dying,” And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby.”
There are a lot of good actors in this film. One of them, Nick Searcy, is known for his knack of using clever dialogue in a clever way. This is especially due to his several years playing U.S. Marshall Mullen on Elmore Leonard’s Justified. I knew there was something amiss when I saw him donning the black as Father Montgomery here. His five minutes of screen time are a perfect example of how poorly written the dialogue is when you don’t understand who you’re writing about. He says things that no man of the cloth would ever say, then the script requires him to look dumbfounded when Mildred rakes him over the coals regarding the ‘group’ he is part of and what they, if not he, have done to young boys. Then she walks off, all dramatic-like. And he is required to look defeated. This is a righteous indignant social justice warrior’s dream. They write the script, and have their enemies layed out perfectly per their own impressions of them.
Not that there isn’t some good parts to the film, though. Woody Harrelson is as fine as I have ever seen him. His Sheriff Willoughby is troubled, but hardly conflicted. If the film saw more of his character, it would have surely been a benefit. There is something more to his character than the one note characters surrounding and following him.
One of the most troubling characterizations for me is Sam Rockwell’s bumpkin without a cause, Officer Jason Dixon (get it, Mason/Jason?). He and his mother, played by Sandy Martin are ambling through life just smoking, watching television and hating anything different. Why the Sheriff keeps him on the payroll will be for you to find out. First though, we need to see him get worse as the situation demands. My problem is as much with Rockwell’s Californian estimate of the south as it is with McDonagh’s substantial misreading of middle America as part of the deep south. Perhaps if I didn’t have friends and relatives from Missouri, I might buy into this interpretation more.
The things that people do to each other and their property in this film are hard to take. What’s even more difficult to believe is that no one seems intent on investigating any of these things, even when it’s done in the open. People walk around freely after committing felonies and then walk away. No one ever says, “Hey did you kick two kids in the junk at a school?” Things get compounded and misunderstood enough to qualify for a Curb Your Enthusiasm skit, only with significantly fewer laughs.
Much hay has been made that this is a sure thing for McDormand. This movie is nowhere close to Fargo, though. There is character development, to a point, but when someone starts off as the aggrieved divorced mother, there’s only so far one can go. McDormand gets there, though, and has several touching moments in the plot. Truth is, she’s been better and she’s significantly better than the script deserves. Maybe if she’d referred to Dinklage as a midget just a few less times, I might buy that she’s advanced culturally.
Deep beneath the curdling cries of injustice being perpetuated by lazy Missouri “southerners” there is a half-way decent plot. Living in a liberal bastion of the Northwestern United States, I heard more than a few self-satisfied snickers during all of the key political points. None of this resonated, though. There’s only so many times you can call someone a Neanderthal before it loses its impact. Of course by the time we have a need for a real bad guy, one just comes out of the blue, or does he? Or do we even care by then?
McDonagh has been effective in the past, with many of the same actors, even. He completely wastes Searcy, Dinklage and Hawkes here. If his writing seemed better in the past, it may have been due to more familiarity with the subjects. I wish the focus had been more on realistic characters, maybe punching up the plot a bit. Telling urban American city folk that the people living out there where there’s green trees and grass are creepy and weird is a surefire way to win festivals and maybe awards. It will not win as history or any sort of lesson, though.
(**1/2 out of *****)