In an effort to track down who raped and murdered her daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has three billboards erected outside her town of Ebbing, Missouri. They accuse the Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) of doing nothing to catch the killer. This causes a largely adverse reaction amongst the town’s folk , not least one of the sheriff’s deputies, the hot-headed, irascible Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). (source)
Oscar favourite Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, dir. Martin McDonagh) has received a lot of hype. It received a lot of positive attention at the Golden Globe Awards, a lot of Oscar nominations, everyone knows Frances McDormand is a superstar, the cast is fantastic, and director slash writer Martin McDonagh is known for his quick tongue and wit in the face of the bleak circumstances of his films. But, does the film live up to this immense hype that it’s carried since its release?
It must firstly be said that this is a piece of work where Frances McDormand is provided the opportunity to shine her brightest. I love her. Her snarling portrayal of an angry, vengeful woman who just wants justice for her daughter is captivating. In Three Billboards, she more than earns her Oscar nomination. This performance is supported nicely by Woody Harrelson, portraying a Police Chief who’s at the end of his tether both emotionally and physically. Whilst some aspects of this character’s story seemed super contrived and unnecessary, you can’t go past Harrelson if you want to comfortably watch an exasperated police officer trying to do their job (see also: True Detective). Sam Rockwell is a surprise highlight as well, as a sexist, racist, homophobic piece of work attempting to be a policeman but failing spectacularly. He gets his redemption arc, but it came a little too late for me. Still, watching Rockwell in anything is always a treat. There’s a nice cameo from Peter Dinklage as well, although I’m a little bothered by Martin McDonagh’s obsession with including dwarves in his films in a tokenistic manner. McDonagh’s direction is also nice, but nothing to write home about.
However… is it just me or is this not that great? I need to clarify that I really didn’t like Martin McDonagh’s 2008 outing In Bruges, and although I never reviewed it, I didn’t like Seven Psychopaths (2012) either. The big problem with Three Billboards, which was also evident in In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, is that the film’s tonal shifts are extremely jarring. Three Billboards operates within numerous genres – drama, comedy, dramedy, dark comedy, crime drama, whatever else you want to call it – that what results is somewhat of a mess of different tones, which probably could have been executed better. Dark comedy can obviously be done extremely well (and has been done well a million times before), where darker moments are seamlessly integrated into the comedic experience and you feel bad for laughing but not really. But with this, it felt either funny or bleak, with little transition to help it along. Sure, I felt bad for laughing when Frances McDormand kicked a school girl right in the crotch. But that too (amongst other moments) was an odd slapstick moment that felt more like a slap in the face. I hoped the dark comedy experience of Three Billboards might be more seamlessly integrated, particularly given the central story of the film which probably could have been an effective pure drama anyway. But that isn’t the experience I had. I think Martin McDonagh is just not for me.
Ultimately, whilst Three Billboards was an enjoyable watch in the cinema, it was a frustrating experience by its conclusion, with an ending that left much to be desired (no spoilers here). The central story is compelling and interesting, and I wanted to see justice happen just as much as Mildred Hayes did. But this story kept getting waylaid by McDonagh’s writing style and attempts at dark comedy which did not work for me. It’s messy, with a rage that feels incoherent at times as a result. Three Billboards is up for a lot of Oscars, and some of those are extremely deserved. But not all of them. Best film? I’m not so sure.
Is it worth paying for a ticket?: Not really, unless you like collecting Oscar-nominated films like Pokémon cards.
Watch the trailer here.