Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri needs a lot of passes. On one hand, writer and director McDonagh writes really shallow female characters outside protagonist Frances McDormand (well, part-time protagonist). On the other, he’s got a really shallow way of characterizing racists—they’re literally too dumb to know better. And then he’s got this weird way of writing Black characters, only two of whom exist in the aforementioned town. Given they immediately hit it off romantically, it’s weird they never met each other. There’s a third Black character–played by Clarke Peters—but he’s from out of town. And he’s got a way of getting the crackers in line.

There have got to be TV movies from the eighties and nineties with more depth, but not with the caliber of the cast. McDonagh gets a bunch of great performances out of his cast, who have mostly easy parts. Like Sam Rockwell as the numbskull racist stormtrooper deputy? Rockwell can do it. He can do it well. But it also doesn’t take much, which is why the performances seems less impressive after Caleb Landry Jones is able to run their scenes together. Or Zeljko Ivanek. Or Peter Dinklage. Or Lucas Hedges.

Wait, Hedges doesn’t have a scene with Rockwell, but Hedges is great and would be able to run the scene. Because Rockwell’s a victim of sorts too. His momma—Sandy Martin in an odd performance—raised him bad because she’s a numbskull racist too, what else would happen. And if it weren’t for sheriff Woody Harrelson’s terminal cancer, he might have a chance to teach Rockwell to stop torturing Black people in custody–which is a running “joke” for the first act and a bit of the second. Apparently McDonagh wanted to go for the audience who’d laugh at everyone repeatedly talking about torturing Black people but know it’s wrong. The torturing, not the laughing. His audience is very much the people who want to defend the laughing.

Harrelson gives an incredibly phoned in performance as the sheriff, who’s unable to solve the murder of McDormand’s teenage daughter (a good Kathryn Newton in flashback), so McDormand takes out three billboards drawing attention to that inability. Harrelson’s got the cancer subplot, he’s got the wife and kids subplot (though no one in the film is less important than Harrelson’s wife, Abbie Cornish, whose personality is her Australian accent), he’s too busy for a crime solving subplot.

McDonagh works a compelling enough melodrama—though, again, it’s frequently cringe-y and not just because all the guys are with women twenty years their junior and said women are just dehumanized ditz jokes—through the second act, but then fizzles when he tries to make it about the mystery. And the redemption arcs. So much redemption, so many abandoned characters.

If it were better, it’d be a mess, but McDonagh’s never able to pull it off after his first big twist. He’s only got two; neither are good. But the second one is at least in the finale, where there ought to be a big twist. The other one is where there shouldn’t be one so it draws attention and McDonagh never recovers from it.

Technically good performance from John Hawkes as McDormand’s abusive ex-husband who regularly beats her in front of their kids, which the kids have normalized and turned into a joke. Does Hawkes make the situation believable? No. But he’s good. Samara Weaving’s good as his nineteen year-old girlfriend who apparently supports him on her wages at a petting zoo or something.

Brendan Sexton III has an appropriate cameo, but it’d have worked better if I’d known it was him. Nick Searcy has a good cameo, but his name’s not on the movie because I think it came out he was too racist even for a vaguely edgy production like this one to promote. It’s in the first act when McDonagh’s writing for McDormand is best. Great scene.

Ben Davis’s photography is fine. McDonagh shoots it Panavision and can’t fill the frame, which is a bummer. Carter Burwell’s there to remind you Frances McDormand was in a Coen Brothers movie once so if you watch through half-closed eyes it seems like a Coen riff on a redneck gothic melodrama character piece. Only the movie ditches McDormand and switches to Rockwell in the third act to give it a very literal ending for the people in the audience who weren’t paying enough attention.

Otherwise, McDonagh’s direction is good. He’s very good with the cast. The problem’s his lack of insight.

McDormand’s good enough to carry it too, so when he shifts it to Rockwell, who can’t because it’s a nothing arc, way too little, way too late, Ebbing takes a big third act stumble.

It’s fine, actually. If it had a good finish with all the icky bad asterisks on it, it’d be worse. Once it’s clear McDormand and Rockwell don’t have great parts and Harrelson’s out of it… it’s fine. Just with a bunch of asterisks.

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