There’s a certain degree of ironic insight granted by the fact that the U.K. are subject to late general cinematic releases of the Oscar buzz films. In the suite spot between the Golden Globes and The Academy Awards, the big winner of the former, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has finally made it’s way overseas, allowing us to assess it’s big wins and look forward to it’s inevitable nominations at ‘the big one’, to be held on March 4th. This insight, however, is a blessing and a curse, as it brings to the forefront many preemptive expectations, that put the film in a somewhat heightened context. For this particular case, sadly, it seems that the expectations laid upon were too high to be met.
In the seven months since her daughter’s murder, Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) frustration with the local police department leads her to rent out three abandoned billboards on an unused road just outside of town, explicitly highlighting the details of the murder and calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) due to the lack of arrests. Soon after, the small town of Ebbing is thrown in to chaos, as Hayes’ unstoppable quest for revenge unveils hidden secrets and morals.
While perhaps not wholly fresh, what writer/director Martin McDonagh gives us here is indeed original, a notion that has been sorely missing into today’s Hollywood climate. However, with stories like these, that have notable callbacks to periodic genre tropes from the 70’s, juggling the many old and new elements can be a difficult thing to achieve, while crafting refreshing characters. Sadly, although with the great performances, Three Billboards is a tonally confused tale that has it’s characters make seemingly bizarre decisions that muddy it’s direction, and stick out like a sore thumb.
And it begins and ends with McDormand’s Mildred Hayes. Despite being given the compelling motivation and a powerhouse performance, Hayes is almost too well written. The snappy dialogue she delivers in every comeback feels out of place with the real world the film is trying to depict, guiding her slightly into ‘Mary-Sue’ territory. It’s almost like a horror film, in the sense their formula is to have a calculated number of quite scenes before breaking into a loud, shocking scene, and so on and so forth. It’s the same here, just with the former being overly polished dialogue and the latter being a totally out of left field character decision. Her plight seemingly has no steaks due to her unrealistic ability to put down every single person in town, pulling the audience out of the realistic world it’s trying to drag you back into. And it’s a shame, because the atmosphere that is established is a rather intoxicating one. Full of cool, moody tones, a juxtaposition is found within the townsfolk, who give off a sense of levity and humour among the atrocious crime that occurred there 7 months earlier.
On the other hand, we have Sam Rockwell’s Officer Jason Dixon. This is a perfectly realised character. Immature, prejudiced and naive. Living at home with his mother, reading comic books and having no time for police work the requires actual effort, Rockwell gives us a character that we all already know. It’s a powerful yet hilarious performance, that interplays with the stubbornness of Mildred and the authority of Chief Willoughby perfectly, with a character arc that brings everything together in a neat bow. It’s the same with Harrelson’s Willoughby himself. The main opposer of Hayes, his family man yet misguided demeanour creates a compelling character which the story really benefits from, it’s just a shame there wasn’t more of him.
Getting to this satisfying part of the story, however, takes a while. It’s clear that McDonagh wants to bring across certain socio-political messages, that of race and police brutality, and they’re brought up through the film in a number of different ways. While this is defiantly a story that can accommodate these, it really didn’t need to be so heavy handed, especially with the race angle. One particular flashback is so on the nose it’s unclear wether it was intended to be a moment of humour.
It’s wrong to call Three Billboards a mess, yet it must be said that story and tone wise, it is messy, ending about half an hour after it should’ve. Which is a shame, as the ending is indeed satisfying yet unexpected. With tighter editing and toned down writing, the film could’ve matched it’s brilliant performances (honourable mention – Caleb Landry Jones as slacker ad man Red Welby), cinematography and score to create something much more rounded and engaging, but as it stands, Three Billboards is enjoyable enough without being a bad film, it just could’ve been so much more.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is in cinemas everywhere now. Watch the trailer here –