Written & Directed by Martin McDonagh
Every year has at least one. Sometimes they are more divisive than others, sometimes they are more universally praised than others. However, every year there is at least one movie that the general consensus believes is one of the best of the year and I am one of the few dissenting opinions. I don’t believe it to be very prevalent, but there is always at least one. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the latest from writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), is that movie for me this year. Now, this is not what I would call a bad movie (more on that if you keep reading), but I was not immediately struck by its narrative or filmmaker either. And for a film which, as of this writing, holds a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (for whatever that is worth to you), I must say that I am one of the few that was not won over by this film and its ensemble performance. So take this review with a grain of salt.
Ebbing, Missouri is a fictitious small town in middle of nowhere Missouri. It’s just like any other small town with a small gift shop where Mildred (Frances McDormand) works. It has a local sheriff named Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a foolish deputy named Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and am ambitious business owner who sells advertising space (Caleb Landry Jones). Quaint doesn’t quiet describe Ebbing, however, as just over a year ago, Mildred’s daughter was brutally raped and murdered. Frustrated by the lack of movement on the case, Mildred rents three billboards on the outskirts of town to voice her dismay at the police work on the case. Willoghby, the subject of the billboards, takes offense, while also understanding the pain Mildred is going through. He himself is dying of cancer. But it is Dixon who takes the greatest offense to the billboards, sparking a feud between himself and Mildred in an attempt to clear the good name of Willoughby.
It is just now that it strikes me that summarizing the plot of this film is not as easy as the narrative plays in the film. Those coming in expecting a 21st century Fargo, a popular comparison to this point, will be sorely disappointed. It is not nearly as inflammatory as Fargo, nor is it nearly as funny. McDonagh has a dark sense of humor, and there are some good laughs, mostly at the expense of Dixon, but overall this movie just sort of happens, and that is my biggest gripe with it. A moving “just sort of happening” seems a harmless enough offense, but what I mean by that is it feels soulless, right down to its core. There are many things I could easily applaud this film for: the performance, its structure, the writing, directing, score. But perhaps Three Billboards is just less than the sum of its parts.
The ensemble is terrific after all. McDormand is a force in the lead role. Harrelson (as always) touch, poignant and funny as the heartfelt sheriff who is dying. Rockwell as the dumb, mother-loving deputy who uses his role to feel powerful, but soon finds out he can actually help people too. There are even some interesting parts played by great actors John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges and Peter Dinklage. This is a fully realized, fully functioning town in which the story unfolds. And yet, I didn’t enjoy this film nearly as much as I should have. I have wondered whether this could be the result of expectations. This is a film, as I said, that is no Fargo. Its approach to the story being told is more laconic, less frenetic and hysterical. It has more heart and time for reflection on the evil deeds done, and the evil deeds the good people contemplate doing. I can respect that, and upon further reflection, I probably appreciate the film much more than upon my initial viewing.
However, I still struggle to overcome the vapid nature of the film’s intent. What is the arc of these characters? Where does the story go after the film’s conclusion? What do the characters learn? What do we learn? Expect perhaps the noble arc of Rockwell’s Dixon, and the light shone on how good intentions can be found in the most ignorant of people, I am not sure I have answers for the above questions. What’s worse is I am not sure how much I care to know the answers after viewing the film. Perhaps this would change upon a second viewing. Perhaps there is more detail to glean from a revisit. But for now, my lukewarm reception to the film will have to do, unfortunately. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like it just comes and goes with very little significance. It lacks the same ennui that something like the ending of No Country for Old Men elicited. Instead, I’m just like, “so what?”