The first thing that must be said about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is that it is a step in the right direction for Martin McDonagh. Everyone loved In Bruges, it was a perfect blend of the dark and the humorous, and it had a lot of heart, too. However, that pathos was lost in his sophomore feature Seven Psychopaths, which favoured cineliterate metafiction and frivolous pop-culture gags.
A cursory read of the synopsis will tell you that Three Billboards is more than a return to the dark tragedy of his debut. Indeed, just the title suggests that McDonagh has once again made the location of his story a character in itself, only this time we have the verdant mountains of the Deep South (it was filmed in North Carolina) rather than the spires and canals of medieval Bruges.
This sweeping backdrop is the stage of a vicious yarn about small town America and small town attitudes. In short, it is about Mildred, a tough, belligerent woman who uses a provocative message spread across three billboards with the aim of reigniting the search for her daughter’s murderer(s). Again, Mildred doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but just when you think that there are no cracks in her granite veneer, the textured interplay of McDonagh’s characters start to reveal them. This is especially true of Mildred’s relationship with Sheriff Willoughby, which, despite all the public mud slinging, has an underlying respect and mutual schadenfreude sense of humour. Their chemistry has a particularly poignant depth when Mildred swiftly drops her prickly facade to comfort him in a desperate moment. Scenes like these that are the highlights of Three Billboards.
However, there are several problems with the film, both small and large. Firstly, there’s too much swearing. It may well be an honest depiction of the way these people speak, yet much of the incessantly crude language seem to be played for the laughs, and it didn’t elicit many from me. Secondly, there are several questionable castings, namely Abbie Cornish, who is too young and too Australian to be a credible wife to Sheriff Willoughby. Even more egregious is Samara Weaving’s performance as Penelope, the stupid young girlfriend of Mildred’s white trash ex-husband. Again, she is just not credible; a girl with her kind of wholesome attractiveness just wouldn’t be with a scummy lowlife like Charlie – she needed to be brassier. The worst thing about her character, though, is how flatly written she is. In fact, she’s not a character but a cheap, ditsy punchline delivered with wide-eyed obviousness.
The third and most problematic issue, however, lies with the narrative. There are two important acts of violence in the film, Jason Dixon’s brutal assault of Red, and Mildred’s firebombing of the police station. One can see how these violent set-pieces serve as the nadir of the each character’s tempestuous personality, but the problem is that they go unaccounted for. These are both serious crimes, yet Jason merely loses his job and Mildred is barely even questioned; I’m sorry, but such drastic crimes would have interrupted and overruled whatever was happening beforehand. Some may argue that such narrative matters should be overlooked, but credibility matters.
These flaws prevent Three Billboards from entering great movie territory, but Martin McDonagh’s third effort remains a well-acted and engrossing drama that sometimes hits the same darkly humorous notes of his superb debut.
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