Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri... is so full of wild emotion and bravura acting that it's not difficult to see why it has has earned so much acclaim. In an era where most movies are aimed at 12-year old boys, this one was bound to stand out.
Yet, for all of its tough acting and artful direction, it wears its own unpleasantness like a costumed hero wears a cape. Look at how sincere we all are, the characters seem to say, gritting their teeth like untamed dogs, daring us not to approve. What kills Three Billboards...is that underneath the blood and anger is a rather cheap and obvious story. The director has moments of inspiration, but then we're whisked off into another plotline, rushed along so we can get to the movie's fatalistic shrug of an ending.
The movie certainly starts out with promise. Frances McDormand plays the mother of a murdered girl. Feeling the Ebbing police haven't done enough to find the killer, she rents three billboards outside the town limits and puts up posters asking the police why it's taken so long. She aims most of her rage at good-natured Chief Willoughby, (Woody Harrelson). The good ol' boys in the department don't appreciate her accusations, and it looks like we're up for a battle between a strong, half-crazed woman and some dumb cops.
The cops, of course, are all a bunch of beer-bellied, fag-hating bigots. From the moment we see Willoughby's gut straining against his belt, we know writer/director Martin McDonagh isn't one for subtlety. Yet, he's good at playing a sort of shell game with his characters; we find ourselves rooting for people we didn't like at first, and uncertain about others, which keeps us interested.
The story begins with McDormand seeing a trio of abandoned billboards, not used since the 1980s for a diaper advertisement. Perhaps the baby in the old, torn ad reminds her of her daughter. Then she walks, in slow motion so we know she's serious, to Ebbing's town hall where she asks about renting the billboard space. She stands at the window, which overlooks the police station. A cockroach is stuck on the pane, trying to turn itself over. She gives it a nudge, an easy metaphor for the filth she's about to get into.
In quick order we learn a lot - she feels horrible guilt about letting her daughter out of the house on that damned, fateful night; her ex-husband was an abusive jerk, and her son is embarrassed by his mom's behavior around town. The local priest, and even the town dentist, has a gripe with her, because they all adore the popular Chief Willoughby. Worse, the chief is ill, and doesn't have long to live. The chief also inspires great loyalty from his psychotic deputy (Sam Rockwell), a creep right out of a Jim Thompson novel.
Deputy Dixon is everything that is right and wrong with the movie. He's explosive, but also touchingly stupid. Rockwell plays him perfectly, though McDonagh gives him a number of quirks that feel forced: he lives with his mother, owns a pet turtle, reads comic books, and listens to Abba. These bits, added to "flesh him out," feel like useless embroidery.
Still, the scenes involving Dixon are among the best in the movie. He makes most cinema cops look dull by comparison, because his temper seems genuinely to erupt from the deepest, most brutal pits of human nature. If Three Billboards... had focused on him from the beginning, the abrupt change in his character that happens late in the film might've been more satisfying. Or believable. Instead, it's just another of the director's quick turns.
McDonagh, an Irishman, also wants to say something about the American south. In an early scene we see someone reading a book by that great southern author, Flannery O'Connor; there are constant references to how the south is changing; the store where McDormand works is called "Southern Charms," and in a scene where Dixon is getting beat up, we hear Joan Baez on the jukebox, singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Worst of all is Dixon's name (Jason Dixon), a heavy-handed play on the Mason-Dixon line. In actuality, Missouri was split during the Civil War, but McDonagh is too clumsy to make his point clear, if he has a point.
Ultimately, the film is propelled by rage - we get a lot of scenes of burning buildings and explosions and knives against throats. In between these high spots, characters clench their jaws and simmer, just waiting for the next outburst. What are we being sold here? That violence and revenge gets us nowhere? Wow, there's an original thought.
The violent material in Three Billboards... is so well done, and the performances by the cast so compelling, and the cinematography by Ben Davis so rich, that I wish a better movie had been made. With so much cartoonish violence dominating American movies in recent years, a story like this was needed to remind us that violence is horrible and often kicks back on the perpetrators. McDonagh's method of following a scene of violence with an act of kindness is only partly successful, though, and the relationships I wanted to see develop, between the mother and the chief, and later, between the mother and the deputy, are only hinted at.
Three Billboards...is like an ambitious art project by a beginning painter who has some great ambitions, but hasn't quite learned his craft. Also, for a movie that is purportedly about showing us the downside of violence, McDonagh is clearly having the most fun when he's directing Rockwell to throw a guy out a window. This is a movie where we hear bones breaking and skin peeling, all quite realistically, yet the dialog feels fake, loaded with vulgarities. Children call their mother "cunt," and get away with it, unpunished. The movie has received so much praise for its realism, but in its own way, Three Billboards...is just as mannered and contrived as any comic book movie.
McDonagh started out as a playwright, and like many Irish playwrights, he has often been treated in America as an exotic personage, with a love of language and dark imagery and bleak humor. Some of the praise was justified; a few of his plays were quite fine. As a filmmaker, though, he's so bold with the violence and dark comedy that people overlook his sophomoric messages.
He's like a big kid in a toy store, smashing the dolls until their heads fly off, and then asking us to feel bad about the evils of capitalism.