OP-ROB RATING: BUST
“Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” is a film about grief and hate, and how those two potent emotions can play off each other, often in horrific ways. As far as the plot is concerned, the main source of strife is the rape and murder of Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton), whom we are introduced to first as a charred outline on a grass field parallel to a solemn road outside of the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri. Naturally her mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand) is determined to catch the killer. After months of waiting, Mildred has rented three vacant billboards to remind the Ebbing Police Department of the crime that took her daughter’s life, in hopes of re-sparking their attention. The first billboard, in bold, capitalized black font proclaims the dreadful details, “RAPED WHILE DYING”. The next two are dedicated to questioning why no one has been caught, and directly calling out the Chief of the Ebbing Police, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
What follows, is a roller coaster story in which many eccentric small-town characters are embroiled. The most colorful of which is no doubt Mildred, who is portrayed vigorously by Frances McDormand. Though her grief is unfathomable, Mildred is often an unnecessarily callous woman, with little regard for anything but avenging her daughter’s murder. Throughout the film she cusses out anyone in her way, and resorts to physical violence on more than one occasion. However, Mildred is by no means a dumb woman. Her billboard experiment immediately raises hell in Ebbing, which becomes a battleground between those disgruntled with the police and those faithful to Willoughby.
Perhaps the most active supporter of Willoughby, and enemy of Mildred, is a viciously racist cop named Dixon (Sam Rockwell). He goes so far as to beat the billboard-advertising owner within an inch of his life because of what he perceives as slander. Surprisingly, given Dixon’s demeanor and the post-Ferguson Missouri setting, Willoughby is a calm man with wise perceptions. He sympathizes with Mildred, while offering sound counsel to Dixon. In spite of, or perhaps as a result of a terminal cancer diagnosis, Willoughby sees the very best in people. It is a shame that he is only around for around half of the film because in his absence, the town is thrust into a state of chaos in which each character’s worst qualities on full display.
“Three Billboards” is directed by Martin McDonagh, whose film “In Bruges” uses a similar template: put a group of colorful characters in a set location, and spark a conflict! “In Bruges” is masterfully anchored by Brendan Gleeson, who in some ways mirrors Harrelson’s Willoughby. They are the calm voices in McDonagh’s madhouse. But “In Bruges” is lengths better than “Three Billboards”, and I think it is because the characters in “In Bruges” act out of static convictions. Gleeson’s ethos is rivaled by the antagonist, played by Ralph Fiennes. If you’ve seen the film, you will know that both men, in a way, are correct in their thinking. “Three Billboards” also has characters with rivaling views, and indeed, each have some kind of logic. But unlike “In Bruges”, the main characters in “Three Billboards” experience transformations.
However, “Three Billboards” is wrought with such pandemonium that any meaning is drowned out. No pure message can survive the consistent graphic violence and ugly language that accompany the story. Dixon, for example, is so crass and hateful for most of the film, that his transformation into a genuinely caring officer of the law feels phony. The Dixons of the world simply do not change heart on the turn of a dime. Puzzlingly, the conclusion to “In Bruges” is essentially a tribute to this very idea.
As an audience, we need to believe in a given character’s development. Some films achieve this very thing, and with similarly difficult themes. One that immediately comes to mind is “Gran Torino”, in which Clint Eastwood portrays a salty old WWII veteran with deeply embedded prejudices. The film tactfully shows how he overcomes them. “Three Billboards”, on the other hand, evades the kind of scenes in which characters can really change. As amusing as Mildred’s midnight Molotov cocktail attack on the Ebbing Police Department might be, it soils the believability of the transformation McDonagh tries to sell at the end of the film. We are ultimately led to the conclusion that maybe Mildred has taken the first steps toward inner-peace, and maybe Dixon is a calmer, more understanding man. But I don’t buy it.
Ultimately, “Three Billboards” is not serious enough to properly deal with its themes. Perhaps it would be fitting, in the age of Trump, that such a film could win Best Picture. Perhaps I am missing the point. Maybe McDonagh is saying, “Look at these stubborn people, and the real grief and prejudice in their hearts. If they can change, then there is hope.” Maybe I am misinterpreting a truly optimistic film. However, if that were really the goal of “Three Billboards”, then it could have eschewed much of the unnecessary violence that dominates the story.