Review by @ Jane Freebury
When a grieving mother in rural Missouri tries shock tactics to get results from police investigating the rape and murder of her daughter, she takes things into her own hands. It’s understandable. She has been waiting for months for the police to trace the person responsible and they haven’t come up with anything and don’t seem motivated to solve the case.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) tries to stir them out of their inaction by hiring a set of billboards on a remote stretch of road near her home. In big bold letters on red background, they read: ‘Raped while dying.’, ‘Still no arrests’ and ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s a brilliant move, and the film begins in outstanding fashion as the billboards are revealed one by one.
In bandanna and blue denim, Mildred combines the image of battle-scarred vigilante and embattled working class, and she owns the role. While Mildred doesn’t set out to take the law into her own hands to begin with, she will eventually, in the tradition of American cinema whereby things are sorted out single-handedly, often with a gun.
Except that here, the tale of an individual going it alone is delivered here through the medium of Irish playwright and screenwriter, Martin McDonagh, who had us holding our sides with his hilarious black farce, In Bruges.
Naming and shaming Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) makes for a promising setup, a contest between a righteous, angry mother and a law enforcement officer at death’s door. Essentially good people they have each been pushed to the brink. I don’t know why McDonagh had to end things so abruptly for Willoughby when these two sparring partners could easily have carried the movie.
When Willoughby leaves the sceme, his passing strikes a sudden sentimental note in a game that has been played fast and hard, strictly for laughs and probably at everyone’s expense.
During In Bruges, two hit men hide out in Belgium’s perfect medieval jewel, creating pure amoral mayhem. In Three Billboards, there is a strange impulse towards a kind of redemption.
Does McDonagh want to say something serious about the American condition? We are pushed up then down as the gears shift, anticipating but never quite comfortable in the humour, the laughs dwindling as the plot advances and morphs into a story of redemption.
Our attention turns to police Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted racist bigot who lives with his awful mom. The joke is that for all the swagger, he is actually quite ineffectual and possibly harmless.
Either way, he is no match for Mildred who seems to get on everyone’s wrong side, including those who are sympathetic – her son (Lucas Hedges) and the young man who rents her the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones).
Just about everyone is taken down here. From the lackadaisical, loopy police to the excessively dim-witted zoo attendant that Mildred’s ex has taken up with (Samara Weaving), to Rockwell’s reformed racist goon, to Mildred herself. She doesn’t think twice about kneeing a couple of teenagers in the groin to teach them a lesson.
The self-inflicted humour in scenes with Peter Dinklage (everyone’s favourite Lannister) is somewhat toe-curling. Yet another instance of how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a high percentage of terrific actors, but the characters writer-director McDonagh has created for them are close to cartoon.
If Three Billboards were anything like as funny as In Bruges, all might be forgiven. But it ain’t, and veers closer to McDonagh’s heavy-handed Seven Psychopaths from 2012 that I was unlucky enough to review on release.
Although he shows the same cinematic tendencies, McDonagh is no match yet for the brilliant Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan – and their incomparable oeuvre that includes Fargo, Burn After Reading, and The Big Lebowski. They are still the masters of neo-noir black comedy set in middle America.
Rated MA15+, 1 hour 55 minutes
Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7