Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 7, 2018)
With 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, we get a tale of anger, revenge and attempts for justice. Set in small town Midwest US, someone brutally rapes and murders teenage Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton), but months pass and the police seem no closer to an arrest.
Bitter and grieving, Angela’s mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) takes matters into her own hands with an unusual gesture: she hires three billboards outside of town to run a message that spotlights her displeasure with local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Unsurprisingly, this creates a lot of controversy and sets an ever-escalating series of conflicts into motion.
For better or for worse, trailers create an impression of what to expect from a movie, and in the case of Billboards, I vote “for worse”. The film’s promos lead us to believe it’ll give us a Coen-esque dark comedy.
Which it does. And doesn’t, for Billboards zips from tragedy to absurdity with alacrity.
This becomes a major problem, as Billboards can’t ever decide where it wants to go, and it fails to balance its two sides well. The film skips from goofy absurdity to dark drama without clarity and never comes together in a satisfying manner.
Sometimes I feel like my reviews leave the impression that I insist every movie follow one strict, clear tonal path and never deviate, but that’s not true. I’m all for films that give us complex narratives and varying attitudes.
If they do so well, which Billboards doesn’t. Its comedy seems too broad and its character developments feel illogical, factors that turn it into something of a narrative mess.
Many of these issues revolve around local cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Much of the movie presents him as a simple-minded, bigoted doofus too stupid to operate heavy machinery, but then he gets smarter and more serious along the way, all for no clear reason other than that’s what the movie wants.
In one of the film’s few subtle components, Billboards drops hints that Jason may be gay. This should add nuance to the movie – and explain his bigotry as self-loathing – but instead, these clues tend to come across as gratuitous and cheap.
Other characters plod a steadier course, but they seem no more three-dimensional – including our lead. Mildred should become the source of the audience’s sympathy and investment, but as portrayed here, she offers such a relentlessly unpleasant personality that it becomes difficult to bond with her.
It would be easy to ascribe Mildred’s prickly nature to her grief, but I don’t sense that her daughter’s death changed her that much. Indeed, flashbacks show her to be just as acerbic and acidic before the tragedy that haunts her.
This leaves the movie with a hole at its core. If we don’t connect to Mildred, we don’t dig into her journey, and that robs the film of momentum and impact.
I think that’s a shame, as Billboards could’ve turned into a bracing treatise on the impact of grief and a quest for revenge. Writer/director Martin McDonagh clearly takes many cues from the Western genre, and he paints the film as a modern-day update on the themes of tales like The Searchers.
Unfortunately, he does so in an inconsistent, ham-fisted manner that lacks nuance, partly due to those cheesy stabs at humor. It also doesn’t help that McDonagh opts to make Ebbing a stereotypical hick town with bigots a-plenty.
Oh, we get a few nice characters, but most of the locals seem unpleasant, and they toss around derogatory comments as easily as they breathe air. Poor Peter Dinklage finds himself stuck with more “midget” jokes than any actor deserves, and plenty of other epithets arise.
A more aware movie would use these terms in a way to reduce the stature of the characters, but Billboards tosses them out for cheap laughs. At the risk of going Social Justice Warrior, this feels awfully regressive and reflects poorly on the filmmakers, as it gives the movie an insensitive tone out of place in the current day.
I guess one can “defend” the choices with the idea that people in places like small town Missouri talk this way, but I don’t readily buy that concept. Ebbing comes across like a foreigner’s idea of rural America, not a realistic portrait, and McDonagh too often tries to pass off crudeness as humor.
Odd inconsistencies plague the movie as well. For one, why does Angela seem to live in 1993? She dresses in “grunge” clothes and sports a Nirvana poster on her bedroom wall.
Did McDonagh initially intend for the film to take place in the 90s and he simply forgot to update that one scene? Does it take place in the 90s and they just were too lazy to make the rest of the movie match?
Similar sloppiness affects character relations. Ebbing seems to be home to about 50 people, but somehow Mildred never met Willougby’s wife? Or advertising agent Red (Caleb Landry Jones)? Really?
And then there’s the fact that characters commit violent crimes left and right but suffer little punishment. Sure, when Dixon brutally assaults Red, he gets bounced from the police force, but given the presence of a new chief (Clarke Peters) who intends to clean up prior messes, shouldn’t he be charged with a crime?
But that wouldn’t fit the plot, so it can’t happen. Unreality and illogic abounds here, as McDonagh seems too lazy to find stronger ways to develop his narrative.
Perhaps if Billboards worked better at its core, I wouldn’t mind these leaps and gaps so much. With so many odd choices at work, though, the cart leads the horse and makes the film something of a mess.