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Review by Simon Ramshaw
For an Irish-British filmmaker, Martin McDonagh certainly loves to take pot shots at America. Although his masterful debut In Bruges was a distinctly European work, his divisive sophomore Seven Psychopaths was a brutal takedown of Hollywood action tropes filtered through a smart alec meta-commentary on … itself? (that film was a bit of a mess in retrospect). His new dramedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, finds itself right in the middle of those two works, rediscovering some of the poisonous, barbed banter between its characters of In Bruges but also widening its scope to even more themes that just scream “AMERICA!” to mixed success like Seven Psychopaths.
This modern fable follows the blazing trail of the trail-blazing Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand on top form), who, after a horrific family tragedy, hires the eponymous billboards to read a message that does not go down well with the townsfolk of Ebbing. Mildred’s outspoken views light the fuse, leading to a powder keg of Midwestern fury, and sending the rest of the narrative spinning between characters like a very angry pinball.
Examining the indiscriminate (or, in some characters’ cases, very discriminate) nature of hatred through the lens of absurdist comedy, the chain of conflict in Three Billboards can be traced back to the very first antagonistic act in the film and beyond. An argument can be made for the creation of America itself being the inciting incident in this bloody tale, and the town of Ebbing being a crucible of all the prejudice and fury dealt by the first blow of colonisation. From this, it’s obvious that Three Billboards’ scope far exceeds that of any of McDonagh’s previous work, so, inevitably, the hit-and-miss rate is increased.
For every genuinely unexpected twist, there is a silly aside or a giant leap of logic. Take Dixon’s explosion of rage just after a sudden bereavement; although Sam Rockwell’s revelatory performance goes some way to legitimising Dixon’s extreme reactions, the film cannot justify its own desire to shock at times. At 115 minutes, the film finds time to poke fun at Samara Weaving’s dim-witted zoologist or make jokes about dirty Oscar Wilde lines during a tender moment. All too often, there are tonal clashes that even a verbally dextrous writer like McDonagh can’t make work.
It’s a shame when the rest of the film is so generally great. Mildred’s arc provides a broken but still beating heart to Three Billboards, and it’s a real pleasure to see other plots drift in and out of her tragic story. Woody Harrelson is reliably excellent as mediating local sheriff Chief Willoughby in a story thread that becomes increasingly emotional and pertinent as it runs through the film, and McDonagh’s real skill is shown in the sleight of hand that enables him to sustain a plot beyond its logical endpoint without contrivance. It’s a real pleasure to see a sprawling film like Three Billboards know when to call it a day, ending at exactly the right moment, balancing a satisfying conclusion with just a smidge of obscurity.
This balance is mostly a stranger to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri though. It’s a film with all the fiery accuracy of a Molotov cocktail; gets the job done, but the results are very messy and almost nobody comes out unharmed (the complicit audience included).