Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017)

From In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes who, after her teenage daughter is raped and killed by unknown assailants, rents three billboards located along a quiet country road which openly ask the local police force, in particular the terminally ill police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), why the attackers still haven’t been brought to justice. As news of the billboards gets out, community tensions run high as Mildred and Willoughby are soon at loggerheads, a brutal, prejudiced police officer (Sam Rockwell) starts stirring up trouble, and Mildred unleashes her anger upon several people in the town, struggling to cope with the loss of her daughter.

Along with Lady Bird, this is one of those films that has gotten a lot of positive buzz around the ol’ blogosphere and has been critically praised and poised for potential awards glory, making UK audiences wait a good long while before it hits our cinemas on general release. But while many have sung its praises, and even though Three Billboards is a good, very well intentioned film with certain standout moments, it didn’t do too much for me and it doesn’t appear particularly Oscar-worthy in my opinion.

The story starts off well enough as the three billboards idea, getting the community to question if the local police force are really doing all they can to catch a dangerous criminal, is an original touch and the film contains some worthy themes about justice, dealing with grief and the abuse of police power, victimising the black community rather than directing their efforts where it’s needed. The first half of the film effectively manages to look at both sides of the coin as we feel Mildred’s grief and the need to find the monster responsible, willing to do whatever it takes, but through Woody Harrelson’s police chief we also see how this may not actually be possible and how the police aren’t exactly superhuman, that there’s a reasonable limit to what they can accomplish and it may just be one of those times when the guilty party gets away due to a lack of proper evidence or eyewitness.

But while this is all well and good, the film doesn’t maintain momentum and after a certain point, the story starts meandering and running out of ideas, unsure of just what kind of film it wants to be and eventually getting to the point where it’s just too difficult to figure out what the point of it all is and what the main message is supposed to be. There are a couple of “false finishes”, times in the film when it really could have ended, but it keeps ploughing on at a leisurely pace and the story soon gets far less interesting than it once was, as well as being overall quite unfocused and inconsequential.

Three Billboards manages to balance drama and black comedy in equal measure and both of these elements work in tandem for the duration but whilst equal time is given to both, neither of them are completely effective as the dark comedy (mainly provided by a very generous serving of F and C-bombs) doesn’t manage to provide huge laughs, just occasional smiles to break up the drama, and the more serious parts, while admittedly well meaning and occasionally effective, don’t make enough of a hard hitting impact to make Three Billboards a film to remember. As has been mentioned by fellow bloggers, the impact of the heartfelt drama is made less effective by the accompanying comedy so in that sense, it’s clear that this film pales slightly when compared to films that deal with similar themes, Manchester by the Sea for example. The pacing in the second half is also quite sluggish, perhaps too slow for its own good, and overall, Martin McDonagh’s writing and direction is good but at the end of the day, there are surely better and more genuinely emotionally effecting films out there.

In main role, the great Frances McDormand is as reliable as ever and as Mildred Hayes, she is tough, unrelenting and determined but also gets uncertain and emotional a lot of the time as she subtly grapples with her conscience and yearns for the guilty party to be brought to justice. McDormand confidently dishes out the outrageous insults, curses and physical violence, she works well with the dark comedy and holds our attention quite well. And opposite her, Woody Harrelson is a very worthy asset to the film since he is perfectly funny when he needs to be but there’s also definite depth to his character as he is a caring family man struggling against a terminal illness and the scenes that feature him and his family, as well as the wonderful verbal sparring between him and Mildred, are the best moments of the film – the scene where he writes a certain note is the very best part of the film because it’s full of feeling and it admirably gets you thinking.

Rounding off the central trio of performances in this film, Sam Rockwell plays an important part as Officer Dixon; for the most part, he is a prejudiced, ignorant and slightly dimwitted man who lives with his Momma (played by It’s Always Sunny‘s own Mrs. Mac!) but then gets to show his tough, harsh, brutal nature in a pivotal moment later on in the film. But his character goes on a journey and as he moves towards redemption, he slowly becomes a flawed antihero and overall, Sam Rockwell plays him very well.

There are many other recognisable names in the cast who all get a chance to show what they can do; Manchester by the Sea‘s Lucas Hedges is good as Mildred’s son, struggling to move on with his life and putting up with his mom’s continuing crusade, Peter Dinklage delivers plenty of deadpan comedy as well as some heart (although he’s noticeably absent for a large portion of the film), John Hawkes initially appears quite dangerous and unhinged as Mildred’s ex but then shows how he’s broken up about his daughter’s murder, and The Babysitter‘s Samara Weaving provides some comic relief as his airheaded 19 year old girlfriend. Caleb Landry Jones also puts in an appearance, apparently a McDonagh favourite given how he also appeared in John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone. Overall, Three Billboards has a really nice ensemble cast and while there are no real ground-breaking acting turns to be found, they all put plenty of soul into proceedings and they work well with the material.

The production design and cinematography is all in order, though there’s a scene involving a doe which showcases an awkward and dodgy bit of CGI/greenscreen, and the score, from the amazing Carter Burwell, is an ideal fit and is lovely to listen to, adding definite tranquillity when required; the use of certain existing classical pieces also works well.

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A valiant attempt at hard hitting subject matter, Three Billboards has a lovely ensemble cast and good balance between drama and black comedy but as it rambles on and on, the story soon becomes unfocused and uninteresting.

★ ★ ★

UPDATE (19/02/18):

Upon second viewing, I appreciated and enjoyed the film a great deal more than I did when this review was first written. In a nutshell, the themes came through more clearly and with more of an impact: I was able to further understand and appreciate the issues of redemption and learning to just let things go, as opposed to angrily lashing out at the world. All of this was actually done very nicely, it struck more of a chord with me and I realised just how special the performances of Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell were – they really brought the material to life with tender emotion and power.

Also, the film certainly did not drag in the second half – I’m sure that I genuinely meant that upon initial writing of this review but watching it for a second time, events actually flowed very well, it remained on message and there was always something important happening on screen.

So that’s my “retraction update” – watching Three Billboards for a second time, the performances seemed stronger, it was less of a slog to get through and I was able to further understand just what this film was about. Now I surely won’t mind if it picks up a few Oscars!

I give it an extra star (maybe it’s worth a five, but I guess that I’m being stingy – not wanting to make too much of a departure from my initial rating!)

★ ★ ★ ★

 

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