Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ★★

THREE BILLBOARDS should have been a stunner, but somehow, it never coheres into a compelling vision. It's got excellent components: a cast that, uniformly (well, almost uniformly) give superb performances with intelligence and depth, a cinematographer who finds poetry in what could have been a pedestrian setting, and a script that attempts to mix the crass and the sublime (a tonal combination, that, when perfected, hits my sweet spot as a viewer).

And yet, despite a lot of excellent work, the movie crashes and burns, veering repetitively from one politically incorrect set-piece to another without much indication that there's an intellectual weight behind its antics. By its end, THREE BILLBOARDS, for me, was an empty provocation, swerving manically from traditionally structured dramatic scenes to broad black comedy that didn't mesh, and worse, became boring, losing any of the sting either the drama or the satire may have had.

The crumbling story doesn't prevent Frances McDormand from shining. She finds a thruline for Mildred, the angry protagonist looking to find justice for her daughter's murder. McDormand can play comedy as tragedy and vice versa, and she's able to ground Mildred, whether she's bawling with a deer to grieve her daughter's death or speaking through clenched, Novocain-numbed teeth to an accusing officer, there's an absurd pathos that's always there, even in underwritten, out of place scenes.

Sam Rockwell becomes the main supporting player in a cast full of excellent actors, and, while he works as hard as McDormand to create a compelling character, he strains just hard enough to sink the believability of his Officer Dixon, a racist, violent simpleton who is supposed to become the sympathetic transformational figure of the picture. Rockwell plays his comedy broad, and his mannerisms are funny, but also cartoonish. His character is from a different story, a Looney Toons cartoon satirizing incompetent police, and this might not have been an issue if we weren't asked as an audience to accept that Dixon grows a conscience, seemingly out of nowhere. McDormand's pathos is real, but the film's can't be, so inextricably tied to a character who is introduced as one thing, and magically rewritten halfway through to be another.

Some of my problems with THREE BILLBOARDS may not have mattered if I was with it, but the root issue, eventually, is that it bored me with its unrelenting unpleasantness. I kept waiting for McDonagh, a writer who generally interests me even when I'm not enamored with his work, to introduce a wrinkle to his predictable sequences of violent, angry outbursts, and compassionate reconciliations. But this sequence, alternated with dark comedy that hopes to shock, seems the only thing on his mind, and, noble as it could have been, it doesn't sustain a two-hour drama. There is an incisive movie to be made about the issues which THREE BILLBOARDS ostensibly has on its mind (and hopefully that film also stars Frances McDormand), but for now, we're left with this caricature of hate, anger, and hopefully compassion while we're left seeking real salves in a world that's desperately hurting.

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