Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Director: Martin McDonagh.
Screenplay: Martin McDonagh.
Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek, Kerry Condon, Amanda Warren, Malaya Rivera Drew, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Brendan Sexton III, Nick Searcy, Jerry Winsett, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Clarke Peters.

“What’s the law on what you can and can’t say on a billboard? I assume it’s you can’t say nothing defamatory, and you can’t say, ‘Fuck’, ‘Piss’ or ‘Cunt’. That right?”

Although Martin McDonagh’s last film, Seven Psychopaths, had a fervent fan base I was very disappointed in it; narratively it was all over the place and I found the humour to be extremely forced. With Three Billboards… it’s good to see that McDonagh has taken stock and decides to deliver something a bit different this time. Like his brother, John Michael, did after delivering laughs with The Guard, he followed it up with a more serious tone in Calvary and it was a magnificent change of direction. This doesn’t quite hit the same level as his brother’s aforementioned film but there’s still plenty to admire here.

Plot: Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is an angry, grieving mother who demands justice for the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. But after months have passed and still no arrests, Mildred makes a bold move and has three billboards erected that accuse the local Chief (Woody Harrelson) of doing nothing about it. This causes a feud between Mildred and the local law enforcement that only escalates over time.

As the title suggests, we open on said three billboards which serve as the driving force behind the film’s plot developments. Although the message they contain is a striking one, they essentially serve as a self-reflective, moral question that eats away at a number of the small towns inhabitants – none more so than Francis McDormand’s mother of the deceased and Woody Harrelson’s Police Chief in charge of the investigation.

What McDonagh manages to capture here is a fine sense of small town America and how such a tragedy can be so impactful and devastating. This is ultimately the strengths within the film as well as some excellent acting from its three principle leads in McDormand, Harrelson and, the always reliable Sam Rockwell. There’s also some fine support in the mould of Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes and, the infinitely appealing, Peter Dinklage. To accompany the cast of oddities we have a wonderfully fitting score from Carter Burwell that’s reminiscent of his contributions to the works of the Coen brothers. The Coens this ain’t, however. McDonagh isn’t able to balance his film with the same finesse as the Coens. As he did in his previous films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, he includes some offensive racist jokes in one hand while bordering on sexism in the other. As if that’s not enough he has Dinklage on the receiving end of one-too-many “midget” jibes. If handled with a bit more subtlety then they might have been acceptable but it’s the needless repetition of these remarks that make them unpleasant. These were the issues I had with the film as they create tonal shifts that feel uneasy and show that McDonagh is trying too hard to be funny when there’s really no need. When he’s not concerned with humour, however, McDonagh is actually delivering a solid low-key drama and thankfully that’s what takes precedence.

McDormand hasn’t been offered a role this good since her Oscar winning turn in Fargo but, as good as she is, I’m not understanding some of the glowing, five-star, reviews the film itself has been receiving – much like I didn’t understand the love for Seven Psychopaths. Maybe it’s just me but McDonagh really needs to work on his tonal inconsistencies, which play havoc on an otherwise great concept. There are contrivances and some plot developments that simply don’t work but as a commentary on the state of modern America it’s quite astute and while it explores some mature themes, I just can’t get past the overriding feeling that McDonagh has yet to grow into a mature filmmaker. This is a good film but it just lacks that cutting-edge spark to make it a great one.

Mark Walker

Trivia: The bandanna Mildred wears is an homage to The Deer Hunter, of which Martin McDonagh and Sam Rockwell are avid fans. During the filming of Seven Psychopaths, they often discussed the movie with its star Christopher Walken.

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47 Responses to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

  1. Good review, looking forward to watching this one

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “There are contrivances and some plot developments that simply donโ€™t work but as a commentary on the state of modern America itโ€™s quite astuteโ€ฆ”

    Oh, yes. We’re very much on the same page with this one, Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Uhm, Mark, I’m not sure if I will be with you on this one. I haven’t seen the film, but I really liked 7 Psychopaths… Of course, it wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was original. Some of Coens’ movies (I love Coens!) weren’t too different, except that they were more graceful and at times more artsy. 7 Psychopaths was more down-to-earth feeling, maybe.
    Maybe it’s just not your type of movie? Anyway… I haven’t seen it yet ๐Ÿ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good review my friend. I struggled through the final draft of my review tonight. Itโ€™s funny, we share several observations almost identically. Iโ€™ve had a hard time landing on this film. Itโ€™s far from perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a good flick, brother. But it makes things hard for itself. The qualities are there but it’s the forced nature that irks me. I can cope with humour that’s non- PC but this pushes it a wee bit too far. That said, this is Often the problem I have with McDonagh.

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  5. Woah… Francis McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson are three actors I always admire and enjoy watching. These 3 can manipulate any given plot, whether shitty or superb. I’m so watching this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m with you on the tonal consistencies – it didnt ruin the film for me but I didn’t like it all that much as a result. McDormand was good but overall I don’t think McDonagh is a particularly good filmmaker and I’m surprised to see this getting so much love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I liked it to an extent. It’s was a huge improvement over Seven Psychos but I did have issues with it. The script is a little all over the place and the tonal inconsistencies are blatant but, like you say, McDormand was was good. But I’ll bet that she knows her husband, Joel Coen, can do this type of shit far more effectively. – maybe that’s why she had reservations on accepting the part in the first place?

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  7. I loved this movie. It wad in my top 10 films of 2016. Would appreciate it if you could check out my article here https://scribblesofstageandscreen.com/2018/01/27/my-top-ten-films-of-2017/

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve noticed the tonal criticism come up a few times but it wasnt an issue for me watching the movie. One of the interesting things about the movie to me was how it could shift tonally from very dark to comical in a matter of lines; a great example being the flashback which shows the somewhat hilarious argument between Mildred and her daughter which ends with very dark and fateful final words shared.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re not alone in your love for it. It certainly seems to have struck a chord with many people. I liked it but, yeah, I didn’t find that the tonal shifts worked all that well. I felt like I was being dragged from one joke to the next and it felt forced and took me out of the drama every time it happened. I’ve often had this issue with McDonagh’s humour though. I find it jarring.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I can get that. How do you feel about Tarantino?

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s funny you mention him alongside McDonagh. I like Tarantino, particularly his first three films – Dogs, Pulp & Jackie Brown are masterworks. In terms of being able to balance tonal shifts, I think he’s a Tarantino is very adept at it. In fact, one of my criticisms of Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths was that he was trying to be Tarantino and failed miserably with that film. 3 Billboards is certainly an improvement over that but I still don’t think that McDonagh is in the same league as Tarantino when it comes to writing dialogue.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Very interesting point of view. My feeling initially is that McDonagh’s dialogue is better, although this maybe because I’ve read some of his plays too. I’d have to think about why for a while though and perhaps I’d change my mind on reflection. Tarantino’s tonal shifts are definitely, on the whole, more measured and smooth. They’re very extreme with McM, like you say. Seven Psychopaths is my favourite of his movies, although I love all of them, I found it the most fun. It’s probably his worst movie for dialogue though and most forced. I enjoyed the way a traditional McDonagh plot is yanked in other directions by Hollywood tropes and convention. I also found the use of the Buddhist very moving. The drastically shifting stories within the story reminded me of some of his other work, although the other examples of more smooth and tonally consistent.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Admittedly, I haven’t read any of McDonagh’s plays (I should remedy that) but for me Seven Psychopaths is his worst film. I had such high expectations for it and it ended up the most disappointing film of the year for me. I liked the self-referential angle but i thought it was messily played out and it became the very type of material that it was trying to make fun of. That said, I found myself in the minority with my views and it seemed to do very well with a lot of people. I actually find McDonagh’s brother – John Michael McDonagh a better filmmaker. Don’t get me wrong, I hated last years War on Everyone but Calvary was a work of genius and I found he got the tonal shifts in that film absolutely spot on.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, man, I love Calvary and The Guard, War on Everyone was kind of unbelievable though. I think Seven Psychopaths now is generally considered his worst film, In Bruges has a big cult following and it seems like Billboards has hit pretty big. I guess we’ll see what history makes of it. The comparison between the brothers is a tricky one for me though, Calvary is incredible. Really I’d have to rewatch these movies close together and ponder for a while but I think Martin creates more intriguing and darkly absurd scenarios that I appreciate slightly more than John’s stuff. Very curious to see what JMD does next though. Really enjoying your work, dude.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, it’s probably fair to say that In Bruges cult status and 3 Billboards’ success will leave Seven Psychopaths behind somewhat. For me, that’s a fair reflection. I’m keen to see more from John as well. I had a fully heard that he was initially doing a death/Suicide trilogy with Brendan Gleeson and his third instalment was supposed be after The Guard and Calvary but it never materialised. War on Everyone appeared and it wasn’t what I expected or wanted. Who knows if he’ll ever complete that trilogy?

        Yeah, thanks for dropping in mate. I noticed you’ve been the doing the rounds on some of my older reviews. Can’t thank you enough for your support, man! Cheers!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. […] while other leading awards contenders like Dunkirk, Lady Bird, The Post, Call Me By Your Name and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri didn’t do enough to even warrant a place […]

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