Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

McDormand lobs expletives in a towering performance deserving of a far better film than McDonagh’s disappointing latest. Muddy without the moral complexity.

Frances McDormand, as Mildred, a grieving mother aflame with righteous fury over the inability of her small town local cop shop’s hive of lazy racists to uncover even the smallest lead identifying the man who brutally raped and murdered her daughter, delivers an incendiary performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing.

While her magnificent work is arguably worth the ticket price alone, sadly the latest film from Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) is nowhere near as good as McDormand deserves.

A towering presence lobbing profane dialogue like Molotov cocktails, Three Billboards is at its best in its opening act focused squarely on Mildred’s mission. Driven by the law’s perceived inaction, she bails up dweebish local advertising man Red (Caleb Landry Jones) and hires, at great personal expense, three long-disused billboards near her home on the edge of town, emblazoning them with these arresting messages: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

This incenses corrupt cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an odiously moronic man who still lives at home with momma and whom the whole town knows is mighty fond of torturing black folks he wrongfully locks up. His attempts to rule by fear are often undermined by his glaring lack of intelligence, but his abuse of power is protected by his complicit chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man in whom we are nevertheless meant to feel sympathy because of illness.

Playing far too heavily on Harrelson’s naturally amiable screen presence rather than allowing the inherent complexity of Mildred, a complicated character whose plot thickens as we learn more about the lead up to the disappearance of her daughter, this weak link is exacerbated by a woefully miscast Abby Cornish as the chief’s wife Anne. Every moment spent with their family is a wasted one.

Whereas In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths clearly established the absurdity of their respective worlds and the heightened violence, like Tarantino, worked within that framework, the acceptance of police brutality here stretches credibility past breaking point in a film that began a good bit straighter than his previous work.

While there’s certainly a sardonic streak here a mile wide in McDormand’s running battle with Willoughby and his men, no doubt meant to offer some commentary on police violence, corruption as well as small-town prejudices, the film starts to sputter is in its much weaker focus on a tonally bizarre and poorly established redemptive curve for Dixon. This is a man who, despite a game Rockwell giving it his all, has no compunction in beating the living daylights out of an innocent man and hurling him through an first floor window. Right in front of the cop shop. On top of said racially motivated torture.

McDonagh asks the impossible in trying to draw moral equivalence between this loathsome man and Mildred’s damaged anger, and the movie’s manipulation of them into an avenging odd couple is fatally weakened by this long bow, replete with a groan-worthily heavy-handed Phoenix motif. It’s muddy without the moral complexity, and that’s all the more true because Three Billboards, for all its acidic wit, at least initially plays a good deal straighter than his previous movies.

A surreal cop out further labouring under Ben Davis’ workaday cinematography, this misstep is made all the more unfortunate given the racial tensions currently wracking America. I couldn’t help but recall Trump’s “Some very fine people on both sides,” comment regarding Nazis marching on Charlottesville. You may well find subversiveness here, but for me, it just didn’t communicate, and that’s a real shame, because McDormand’s performance is very fine indeed.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords