Martin McDonagh’s film trajectory is vastly characterised by his funny, Tarantino-esque yet self-conscious dark comedy style, seen at its best in In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. It’s as shocking and ruthless as a Vertigo comic book, often making the audience wonder whether laughing is indeed an appropriate reaction. Going for a quasi-crime drama set in a small American backwater town therefore seemed, at the very least, quite odd.
The Irish director uses a number of tropes to lay the foundation for an American-style thriller: the dark seething of the American Midwest, the courageous mother in search of justice for her raped and murdered daughter (Eye For An Eye), the contemporary western cinematography and even a police officer with terminal cancer looking for a murderer (Nocturnal Animals).
WARNING: loads of spoilers, etc.
To the surprise of some, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has become one of those January-type phenomena, in which a film starts receiving accolades before anyone has even watched it. However, bearing in mind it stars Frances McDormand in its lead role as Mildred, this isn’t all that unexpected. Her presence fills the screen, generating its own iconic element with little need for others’ interventions, and her portrayal, both brutally amusing and despondent, deserves every prize she can get her hands on. She’s almost too good to be true and conversely, the film suffers whenever it strays from what is its main arc.
Unfortunately, that detail has far greater importance than one would hope, meaning that when the final credits are rolling, the audience may be experiencing more perplexity than anything else. The first half of 3BOEM is a perfect blend of misanthropy, dark humour and drama, which deals with difficult themes, macabre situations and heavyweight problems without offering easy answers, and whose characters make it quite clear they’re not in a typical neo-western rendition or an ABC crime drama.
However, as the story progresses, it starts to transpire that some of the above are more in the audience’s mind as opposite to actually happening on screen. What McDonagh has attempted to do is nothing but commendable – coming up with an extra-dark comedy in which the main character is on a quest for justice for her murdered teenage daughter is a challenge in its own right, which requires a large dose of subtlety and fine tuning. When it works, 3BOEM beams gloriously, but when it doesn’t, it takes the audience to that ill-fated space somewhere between fascination and detachment.
This is especially true when a film is populated with irascible, foul-mouthed characters, that seem to alternate between explosions of violence and moments of sweetness and evocative sadness. Misanthropy and sentimentalism don’t necessarily get along particularly well, and it takes more than Americana-folk songs to come up with a healthy balance of tragedy and humour. It doesn’t help that 3BOEM occasionally seems to present itself as a Mystic River spin-off, with a rough, costumbrist underlay or, for instance, going full-on Frank Castle and drilling a hole through your dentist’s hand. Now, I have no issue whatsoever with the occasional borderline-gore streak, but when it you put it standing next to what is meant to be a beautiful (albeit slightly forced) moment like the deer scene, it ends up coming across as a cacophony of professional mourners holding a megaphone at a funeral. Yet there are some of those moments of perfection – such as Woody Harrelson’s off-screen narration of Willoughby’s farewell letter before committing suicide – showing us that tears can be shed in the absence of an emotionally over-the-top scene, mixing the right quantities of joy and sadness to form something that feels honest and real.
If Mildred’s presence is sometimes at a loss, it’s no doubt related to the amount of time dedicated to Sam Rockwell’s character, Dixon. Despite Rockwell’s extremely competent acting, the “racist idiot” archetype doesn’t go much further than the Manichean stereotype of the redeemed brute, a redneck who’s still living at his mum’s house and is somehow reincarnated using the film’s turbid sense of morality, which tries its best to make him as unpleasant as possible to then suddenly have him seek our forgiveness and end up practically a hero.
The problem with this is that not only does 3BOEM fail to achieve the complex character portrayal it’s aiming for, but it also exposes an attempt at emotional manipulation which is only comparable to the ruthless treatment received by some of Ebbing’s other residents. Peter Dinklage plays a secondary character whose sole reason to exist seems to be for others to call him a “midget”. Black characters, in minor roles, are purposeless window displays to be brutalised and assist in demonstrating how complex and richly layered the white majority is. Latino and Latino #2 don’t even get proper names. Hell, even the did-he-or-didn’t-he character is merely listed as “Crop-Haired Guy”. Apart from the lead character, females exist mostly to be dumb country girls for the audience to laugh at. There’s also a “Japanese Woman” and a “Lady with a Funny Eye”. It’s just too much cliché to handle.
As a result, the script has its moments of not looking as bright as it thinks it is. Take, for example, the scene in which Mildred kicks a priest out of her house after a long reactionary tirade in which she compares paedophile priests to neighbourhood criminal gangs. McDormand delivers the soliloquy perfectly, but it simply seems to come out of nowhere, disconnected from the film and too farfetched for a small-town character. It amounts to little more than a mindless, puerile invitation to sheer demagogy for the anti-clericalism faction to applaud. Of course she’s angry, and of course that much is understandable up to a certain point, but her tactics before increasingly more indefensible.
Fire extinguishers magically appear, police officers never arrest anyone (unless they’re black) even though they sent someone to hospital or there is clear evidence that they caused a fire… An abusive ex-husband casually returns, and a minute later is grabbing his ex-wife by the neck in front of their son, who then immediately points a knife at his throat… A daughter who tells her mother she hopes to get raped just to make her feel bad – and then she actually does get raped and, well, murdered/set on fire… (An awful lot of things seem to get set on fire in this movie…) All of this could happen, of course, but the overwhelming pile-up of unlikely moments is slightly suspicious.
Some characters have loose threads, which are so loose, they’re not even mentioned. The reason for Dixon’s hatred of everything and everyone or the criminal (excuse the pun) underdevelopment of Mildred’s teenage son go unaddressed, but when a murderous-rapist ex machina shows up, quite literally like a bull in a china shop, that’s somehow completely fine…? There’s absolutely zero reason for “Crop-Haired Guy” – who lives in Idaho, over a thousand miles away(!) – to even appear.
In any case, it’s nonetheless important to recognise 3BOEM’s ability to deliver macabre humour and some absolutely glorious moments – the cinematography and scenography at a technical level are 10/10). Overall, however, it comes across as somewhat of disappointing experiment, luckily rescued to a great extent by a very talented cast. Its efforts to show a myriad of tones in its characters’ ethics provide the storyline with momentum through its tossing and turning, but only towards a conclusion that is left far too open, insufficient and even irritating, using its false ambiguity as bait to “let the audience decide”, as if the film’s masterminds didn’t care enough to make the decisions themselves.
Dir: Martin McDonagh
Scr: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
Prd: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Martin McDonagh
DOP: Ben Davis
Music: Carter Burwell
Country: UK / USA
Runtime: 115 minutes
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is available in the UK in DVD and Blu-Ray formats.
Pictures courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.