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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: A Review


My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, is the story of Mildred Hayes, a mother who clashes with her local police department because of their inability to solve her teenage daughter's murder. The film stars Frances McDormand with supporting turns from Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes. 

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is a mildly entertaining but utter mess of a movie. The film's narrative and dramatic structure are so unsound that the movie is never able to rise above the rather low bar of being moderately amusing and somewhat entertaining. The film tries to be a morality tale about vengeance and forgiveness but there is such a paucity of groundedness and genuine human emotion and behavior that whatever deeper and high-minded ambitions the film might have had get lost in the film's unreal absurdity and the entire project ends up being a pedestrian artistic enterprise.

A major issue with the film is that writer/director McDonagh is never able to make the odd and quirky universe he has created even remotely believable. Most of the characters are so incredibly dumb and one-dimensional that they are little more than farce, and even the violence, which is quite realistic, lacks any connection to a real world because it all plays like a revenge fantasy. 

Frances McDormand is a fine actress, but her performance here feels stuck in one note, which might be attributed to the lackluster screenplay. McDormand has a powerful screen presence and a commanding face but her work in Three Billboards feels entirely repetitious and monotonous. Watching McDormand's Mildred angrily stomp through scene after scene reminded me of the female Native American character in the movie Dances With Wolves who was named Stands With Fist, Mildred should be named Eats, Sleeps and Walks With Fist. Throughout the film, McDormand is in a perpetual state of focused agitation with the lone exception being a brief but genuinely moving scene between she and Woody Harrelson that shows a much too quick flash of Mildred being a real human being. 

The supporting cast of Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage all do solid work. Harrelson's Sheriff Willoughby is the most believable character in the whole film. Harrelson imbues Willoughby with an earthy weariness that gives the movie its few believable moments. 

Sam Rockwell gives an interesting performance as dim-witted and morally ambivalent Officer Jason Dixon. My one issue with the Dixon character is that it is a very poorly written and stereotypical part. Rockwell makes the most of what he is given though and is the only actor able to give a full arc to his character.

Besides the believability issue, another problem with the movie is that it jumps around in perspective and thus waters down the potential for an emotional attachment to Mildred. By giving the audience multiple perspectives of the story, the film ends up diluting any sort of connection we might have to any one singular character. As a result we are left on the outside not only of the world McDonagh has created but also of Mildred's incessant pain, and we can only then judge the film in terms of believability and not emotional connection. 

My final issue with Three Billboards is that it is trying to be a dark, Coen-esque comedy, but the story at its center, the rape and murder of a teenage girl, is simply a poor subject to build a comedy around. In the balance between a drama that is funny and a comedy that has drama, Three Billboards ends up falling slightly more into the comedy with drama category, and that is greatly to its detriment. Except in the most skilled and brilliant of artistic hands, it is cinematic suicide to create a movie around the rape and murder of a young girl which includes realistic scenes of violence, and try to play things for laughs. Martin McDonagh is a talented guy…but he isn't nearly that talented. In fact, McDonagh's writing and directing seemed pretty lost in the woods on Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri. 

In conclusion, I have to say that I did not hate Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, I was mildly amused by the stellar cast. That said, I found the film to be troublesome because it was poorly written and structured and failed in its attempt to find meaningful substance or higher purpose in its dark subject matter. At the end of the day, if you want to watch some good actors in a very average and ultimately forgettable film on cable television, then Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri is for you. I think the real moral of Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri is that failing to make a great film but succeeding at being moderately entertaining is not a sin, but making a dramedy that centers on the rape and murder of a young woman, might be.