By Jack Dignan
If there’s one thing Martin McDonagh has proven over the course of his three feature films thus far, it’s that he has a knack for creating likeability within unlikeable characters. His first film, In Bruges, took an assassin haunted by the accidental murder of a child and created a darkly funny, often sympathetic look at his life, where a suicide attempt results in one of the funniest and most memorable moments. Then came Seven Psychopaths, which took seven despicable characters (sort of?) and moulded them together into a narrative that’s twisted, loveable and haunting all at the same time.
Now, McDonagh returns to write and direct this third film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and his strong sense for making the unlikeable likeable returns as we follow a small Missouri town in the after-math of an unresolved rape/murder case. The mother of the victim, Mildred (Frances McDormand), frustrated by the local police department’s incompetence, hires three billboards which she uses to call out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for not being able to finish he job and find the killer. These billboards cause uproar and controversy throughout the town, involving a series of notable figures to take involvement, including Willoughby and his partner Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
It’s a black comedy through and through, with several sequences throughout leaving the audience bursting with laughter, most of the time during scenes that really shouldn’t be funny. There’s a subplot that involves the police’s prior brutality towards a young black man, a topic that’s a very serious subject, yet McDonagh manages to take this dire situation and inject it with an uneasy, but effective sense of humour ridden into almost every conversation. You’ll be laughing hard, but feeling bad because of it. An extended dialogue exchange between a frustrated Dixon and a sick-of-everyone’s-shit Mildred is a standout moment.
But despite the large amount of humour, most of the best moments unfortunately spoilt in the trailer, the drama shouldn’t be undermined. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a drama first, comedy second, a turn around from McDonagh’s previous efforts. There are rich, relevant themes of the social justice system, all while serving as a commentary on grief, prevalence and dealing with the loss of loved ones. When will the pain ever stop? And if no justice comes, at what point is enough enough? A lot of audience members may feel confronted by the startling subject mater, but it’s an important one nonetheless.
Sadly, the biggest issue I had with this film was its inability to mash the two approaches together. Tonally, this film is all over the place. The comedy works in its own right and the drama works in its own right, but often, the two don’t always go hand in hand. And it’s not as though these aren’t subjects that should be joked about, McDonagh has proven you can make memorable jokes discussing just about anything, it’s that the jokes can often undermine the dramatic impact, while at the same time, the jokes are also undermined by the dramatic impact. Certain scenes feel unsure of which tone they’re going for, resulting in a Frankenstein mash of the two.
Once the third act rolls around, a tonal balance is finally reached, elevating this film to its brilliance that should’ve been met earlier, but even then, its lack of character arcs make for a frustrating finale. Sam Rockwell steals the show as a racist, douchebag cop who’s one fuck up away from loosing everything he holds dear, and part of the reason why he’s so great is because his character is the only one who receives any sort of personal development. He evolves and changes by the time the credits roll, while McDormand and Harrelson remain the same characters they once were.
Maybe that’s the point, though. The film does spend a great deal of time discussing how some shitty events just don’t receive a resolution, McDonagh reflecting that by having the characters unknowingly accepting their inability to move on, but even then, you don’t feel it as well as you should, despite some absolutely sensational lead performances from all the major players. Woody Harrelson feels somewhat underused, his character not nearly as big of a player in the story as the advertising may suggest, but this is McDormand’s best performance since her Oscar-winning turn in 1997’s Fargo.
I may not have loved this nearly as much as everybody else seems to have, but please, I implore you to check this film out. It’s a strange, twisted and original story that’s important and relevant, with so many memorable moments and lines throughout that’ll bring you to tears for both better and worse. McDonagh is a force to be reckoned with, and if his first three films have proven anything, it’s that he’s a talent the world needs to keep a sturdy eye on.
3 1/2 Stars
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