Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It’s going to be hard to write this review. The first 45 minutes of this film I loved. The rest of the movie was frustrating. It has a few interesting scenes, but mostly crap. It has people talking the way they wouldn’t talk. It has people acting in ways they wouldn’t act. It’s the same problem I had with writer/director Martin McDonagh’s other two movies (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). I’m starting to think McDonagh should just stick to being a playwright. His attempt here in cloning the Coen brothers…just didn’t work (although it’s a much better attempt than Suburbicon last month). At least he had the good sense to steal Frances McDormand from them (and just like with Fargo, she’ll get an Oscar nomination).

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an intriguing title. The movie starts with Mildred Hayes storming into an ad agency wanting to rent three billboards. In the first of many things that don’t make sense, she throws down $3,000 to pay for a month of them. Even after the man that runs the place (Caleb Landry Jones) tells her they haven’t rented those in decades and nobody would want dilapidated billboards on a road that nobody uses anymore, unless “they’re lost or a retard.”

It’s strange that after hearing all that, she didn’t negotiate a better price. Especially since later in the movie she has trouble paying for them.

She has the billboards say “Raped while dying” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

In the next scene that doesn’t make much sense, we see a sheriff (Sam Rockwell) freaking out over them. You think he’s Chief Willoughby. Nope. Just a guy that, for some reason, is angry about this.

Woody Harrelson is the chief, and he’s bothered by the billboards, but when he talks to Mildred about them…it’s an interesting scene. We understand her anger, but he also makes a strong case for why they have no suspects.

In one of only a few scenes that work perfectly — Willoughby is questioning Mildred over an incident involving a dentist, and he coughs blood on her. You see, he’s dying from pancreatic cancer (they mention that early in the movie). It’s the only moment Mildred shows any humanity, and it’s powerful. So often in this movie she’s just this crazy, angry woman. We’re supposed to be on her side, but that gets hard. Her son (Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird) is being picked on at school because of the billboards. Yet she doesn’t seem to care about that. She has a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) that’s sweet to her, who she doesn’t treat very well.

When Mildred has something thrown at her car and three high school students are standing nearby, she gets out of her car and kicks all three in the crotch. How is that a character we root for? And on the other end of that, how is it everyone in town hates Mildred because of the billboards? Wouldn’t some people in town have sympathy for a mother who had a daughter raped and murdered?

I’ll give McDonagh credit. He can write snappy dialogue. That makes for a lot of interesting scenes. There’s one scene involving a priest that gets rather nasty, and it’s intense. There’s a lot of dark humor that works. The problem I have is when McDonagh writes people that are caricatures. We have Officer Dixon (Rockwell), who is a bumbling idiot, and a hardcore racist. There’s no way that guy would have had a job in that town, unless it was a minimum wage job in a warehouse. Instead, we’re supposed to believe he scarfs down donuts while reading comic books at work, forgetting his badge at home, and spewing the n-word, or throwing guys out of windows when he gets angry. This isn’t three billboards in Ebbing in 1938. This guy would be in jail.

It was a pleasant surprise to see the underrated John Hawkes, but he also plays a caricature. The abusive ex-husband who is now with a gorgeous, but dumb, 20-year-old. And speaking of younger women, why is Chief Willoughby’s beautiful wife half his age? If we’re supposed to dislike Hawkes for having a trophy girl, why is it not supposed to bother us with the Chief? And how would either of them ever been able to score women like that? Even when Hawkes is threatening McDormand and the new woman walks in. She doesn’t freak out over what she sees. She merely asks to use the bathroom.

Huh?

We have no sense of context for why these people would act the way they do. I’m watching it wondering if all the cops are racist, even the Chief, if he’s unwilling to do anything about Dixon.

The movie really needed to reign things in a bit. Too many over-the-top characters, just like in Seven Psychopaths (which also starred Woody Harrelson). Now, when the Coen brothers do this right, there are some weird characters, but they’re all believable. But it’s not just the Coen brothers McDonagh is borrowing from. He seems to borrow a lot from his previous work. I don’t have the time to go through all the examples, but I will give you one example of something that worked in a previous movie that didn’t work here. Peter Dinklage.  In In Bruges, the dwarf (Jordan Prentice) was a terrific character, and when Colin Farrell gets mad and karate chops him in the neck, it’s hysterical. Prentice was on a racist rant, and Farrell didn’t want to hear any more. In this movie, the joke just seems to be a dopey ex-husband that wants to keep calling him “the midget.” Or, it’s Dinklage saying he has to go “use the little boys room.”

That doesn’t mean this movie is without humor. It has many zingers that work well, and in fact, it makes a lot of the film entertaining. There’s also a well-written scene in which Chief Willoughby writes a few letters to people that is terrific.

McDormand has a toughness and sass that’s fun. For awhile.

The cast is solid. It’s just a shame this couldn’t have been a better movie.

2 ½ stars out of 5.