Martin McDonagh’s latest flick starts strong, but tapers into nastiness and brutality
Ebbing. It’s the name of the town near to where Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) lives, but the verb can’t apply to Hayes’ grief. It’s still raging in Martin McDonagh’s vengeance-seeking drama, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which flickers with a raw, elemental power despite occasional conveniences, heavy-handedness, and a too-savage tone.
Months after her daughter was murdered and her body burnt, Mildred, fed up with the case growing cold, pays for messages to be plastered onto three billboards along a road on the outskirts: “RAPED WHILE DYING”; “AND STILL NO ARRESTS,” and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is not only frustrated about the case, but dying of cancer. One of his officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is a loose cannon. Soon, though, Mildred’s provocation and Willoughby’s terminal condition lead to strange alliances and a possible new lead.
The story is at its best early on, alert to Hayes’ grief as it blears and blurts into grievance. Minimalist dialogue and minutely observed family moments build a small-town allegory for an America where people pick sides and are searching for something or someone to take their anger out on. Dixon turns out to be an interestingly pathetic every-cop, standing in for boys’ club bigotry while still a troubled, white working-class son trying to slip out from his nasty ma’s shadow.
That mother, though—as memorable as she is—and some other characters lurking on the periphery come closer to caricature or seem token (a “midget” ends up the sad clown). As with playwright McDonagh’s other big-screen ventures, there are moments that still seem stagey: read-out letters (one overlong farewell note); dramatic convenience (a police station has no rear-exit?).
If the movie’s trying to be a Southern gothic fable of the evil that men and women do—as its early shot of a character reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories suggests—it doesn’t insinuate itself and burrow in. Most of the darkly humorous moments here do sting, revealing jokes to be the only balm, at times, for an aching grief. But all that initial minimalism is soon engulfed by so much fiery violence, emotions on the rampage, and bottom-line nastiness and brutality. What could have been a series of dry, acrid tumblers, downed one shot at a time, becomes one Molotov cocktail after another, thrown again and again.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by Martin McDonagh