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.


33 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.


  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

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