This was the first film that I had heard Awards buzz about, premiering at Venice Film Festival and later winning Toronto Film Festival’s top prize and, as of this writing, the People’s Choice Award. Early reviews celebrated Frances McDormand’s performance, anticipating the top prize at next year’s Oscar, with Sam Rockwell cruising right behind her, having been under the radar throughout the last decade or so, with only director Martin McDonagh’s previous film Seven Psychopaths (2012) getting Rockwell back onto the screen (though in fairness, I didn’t remember him from the film; nor much of the film overall).
I enjoyed In Bruges (2008), though not necessarily on board with its cult status, where it felt like for the next five years or so it was near or at the top of most people’s favorite films list. I thought Seven Psychopaths was okay, but I struggle to remember much of what happened, never feeling like the film found its soul amongst its clear and clean synopsis. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri fits somewhere in the middle of both narratives, abandoning all of the action and shoot em ups in order to focus on a more intimate character study, though again failing to ever penetrate the surface of what are just a bunch of wacky characters, feeling as though it wanted to be part Coen brothers, part Tarantino, part Jeff Nichols, and about a half dozen other filmmakers, leaving it with so much flavor that it all devolves into muddied dish, never deciding what it wanted to be.
The story involves Mildred Hayes (McDormand) whose daughter had recently been raped and murdered. With the police failing to make any progress, she purchases three billboards in the town of Ebbing, Missouri - right down the street from her house, painting them with the cryptic three lines: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrest”, “How come Sheriff Bill Willoughby?”. Sheriff Willoughby in this case is played by Woody Harrelson (who I didn't even know was in the film), as the small town’s policeman who been recently diagnosed with cancer. Part of his ragtag team of deputies is the volatile and racist alcoholic Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who has allegedly - and maybe admits, I can’t remember - to torturing black people amongst other forms of complete disregard for the law. The police, particularly Dixon, are offended by Mildred’s act, though while Willoughby wants it down, he also empathizes with Mildred’s frustration and demand for justice.
The protest attracts some local media attention, which brings back Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) who, while gaunt, pale, and just plain weird looking, is able to begin dating a fairly attractive 17-year old - who the type of character people should be offended by being played as a vapid airhead, unable to comprehend the situation around her; as though pulled straight from Mean Girls (2004), Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), or any other popular teen comedy. In this deep southern town, where everyone’s overweight and has some accent, the valley girl was completely out of left field.
So this is the general plot, which by all accounts, is pretty interesting, and while I was expecting some type of Prisoners (2013) or Mystic River (2003) type of film (I wasn’t familiar with McDonough's name to know his previous work), it’s as though he simply wanted a world to set this situation in order to insert a bunch of other quirky characters, as very little makes sense in this story at the micro level.
Getting into some significant spoiler territory, we can start with the bizarre scene between Mildred and Charlie, when the news is starting to pick up, him and his mom get into an hackneyed and foul screaming match, leading her to dump cereal on her their son Robbie Hayes’ (Lucas Hedges) head, just as his dad then arrives, who again is sickly skinny and pallid, launching into a fight that felt straight from an intro acting class, especially when the 17-year old girlfriend comes in, asking something so stupid that I can’t even remember what it was (it might have been about the bathroom), other than thinking - beyond the illogic of her failing to hear this fight - of all reasons to come in the house, this had felt done a billion times for similar situations in which an outside and irrelevant party enters an argument with a family, stumbling in respons. It quickly escalates into domestic violence, a knife comes out, and I was left thinking - what the fuck did that have to do with anything? By being such an uninspired scene, there was no character development; as it felt like everyone was playing a version of a famous stage personality.
Another bizarre issue occurs when Sheriff Willoughby, although only early into his cancer treatment, decides to kill himself after taking his gorgeous wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and two young girls to the middle of park next to a river, in order to sleep with Anne outside in the woods, where you then realize his wife is British, which isn’t weird, it just creates questions that I don’t really think have all that interesting of answers (not that it necessarily needs answers), but again, similar to the 17 year old girlfriend, could have been so much better if casted as a more believable local character. At twenty years younger than Harrelson and looking that much younger in the film, this would mean when Willoughby was a 45 police officer when he hooked up with 25 year old wife to be. A little creepy.
Any way - he decides to shoot himself in the head after their date, leaving his wife to find him with his head blown off in a barn, leaving his girls without a father, and while maybe it was in some way related to the shame he had for not finding Mildred’s daughter’s killer, it just felt like a needlessly dramatic and shocking scene that could have better worked by keeping him alive.
Sam Rockwell’s story is by far the best, though again it falls into a strange illogic, as after Dixon tries to strongarm the advertising owner Red (Caleb Landry Jones; who I’m excited to see more from) who’s renting the billboards to Mildred to break the deal. Red refuses and so Dixon assaults and nearly kills the man by throwing him out a window, returning to the office and finally getting fired when the new African American sheriff Abercrombie (Clarke Peters) sees the act. The scene is all done in one take, and while it could have been cool with purpose, I just couldn’t agree that a police officer would be this stupid or last this long, not to mention when his former friend and fellow officer then invites him back to the station to drop of his keys after hours, where he then just so happens to catch Mildred tossing Molotov Cocktails at the station, trying to burn it down. A perfect example of plot serving at the expense of logic.
I could go on into other details, such as the character James played by Peter Dinklage who once again is the butt of a bunch of dwarf jokes, leaving me wondering if Dinklage was offended or not, as this can’t possibly happen to every single one of his characters and it didn’t need to happen here, as having been in the town so long, you’d think these cheap jokes would get old.
The film never really wraps or goes anywhere, so much as each character is essentially taken to the limits of an unresolved the story. Dixon and Mildred then join forces after Dixon suspects one of the locals of being the rapist, entering into a manhunt that goes so far as the car, and while I kind of appreciated the ambiguous ending, it felt like where the film ends is where the midpoint should have been.
Ultimately, maybe it’s because I’m from Chicagoland, but the biggest problem is that this film feels like it’s just poking fun at a bunch of stupid midwesterns. It provides a cursory look at what could have been a broad range of fascinating people, abandoning insight for unmotivated action and some cheap jokes. While In Bruges made me feel like the filmmaking team had been there, understood and grasped the culture, Ebbing, Missouri felt fake, as though it could have taken place anywhere else in rural America. For identifying such a specific place, I expected far greater depth, as the Coen Brothers have established with Fargo (1996) and the honest world they portrayed. This felt like it was created with a glance, abandoning all of the details that makes an area great in order to insert shiny bells and whistles with colorful character and big action.
BELOW: Cool oner, just not sure why it was needed
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