THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI Review: 7 out of 10 (Caustic Cinema)
Films can offer a range of emotional responses. Tears of empathy. Adrenalin rushes. An understanding of others. Joy from life. And sometimes it brings out a response that we, the viewer, aren't entirely comfortable with. In the case of THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI it is laughing at some really dark moments. Dark enough that if we were there in person we wouldn't be laughing at all--we would probably be calling the authorities. This dramatic film/dark comedy is written, produced, and directed by Martin McDonagh. It stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage and tells its story in and around a small rural community full of a lot of unhappy and broken people. Their lives are mostly sad and painful, sometimes hilariously so, not because we laugh at their pain, but we giggle at their response to it. The film opens with an operatic score--informing the audience clearly that what we are about to witness is a tragedy--before moving into some bluegrass music to match the setting.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a single divorced mother still grieving and feeling immense guilt over the rape and violent murder of her daughter Angela seven months prior. She is in constant battle with local police over the lack of movement in her daughter's case. This leads her to rent out three abandoned billboards outside her hometown to challenge the local police chief (Harrelson) for answers. Sam Rockwell plays Dixon--a local officer who isn't very bright lives at home with his mother and has had his own checkered past of abuse. He, along with other townspeople, feel empathy for Mildred and her daughter's death but feel the billboards are in bad taste. Some even choose to begin to harass and threaten Mildred. Add in her abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) and her depressed son (Lucas Hedges) and it is a broad mix of hurt and broken people orbiting around each other. Add to this that Mildred is a fairly acerbic woman, though it seems her grief has made this quality far worse. Though she fights for what she believes in with grit, she shows kindness for those she is at odds with. Nearly everyone here does. Some fly off the handle, act rashly, do terrible things...then offer heartfelt pleas for forgiveness and work to seek redemption. It is a film with plenty of ups and downs on a wide emotional spectrum.
And sometimes the movie swings a bit too far. It seems writer/director McDonagh doesn't trust all the clear visual cues and amazing performers. There are some moments in the script that seem to be salt-in-the-wound moments that are unnecessarily harsh. It is clear Mildred's family is mired in dysfunction--so do we need a couple of extra lines of on-the-nose dialogue to further persuade us? We get that Dixon is a dolt--do we need other characters constantly telling him/us that truth? The movie runs from being an awfully realistic portrayal of caustic and shattered citizens but then seems to swipe at the believability of it all by pushing the boundaries past where the audience is willing to go. It is difficult to call this movie entertaining, though there are plenty of uncomfortable laughs that might leave the audience with some guilt themselves. Race baiting, homophobia, domestic violence, rape, and plenty more are present and accounted for--played for both sympathy and humor.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is a film full of self-loathing. Laughter, grieving sighs, and hot rage are all here on exhibit. There are some fantastic performances--and McDormand is sure to see a nomination. But for a film that swings so wildly on the emotional pendulum, some strength in subtlety was needed.