While I am a huge fan of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s first film, In Bruges (2008), his follow-up effort, Seven Psychopaths (2012) didn’t quite live up to the promise of his debut. And now his third effort, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, lies somewhere in the middle for me. It has more than enough of the charm, eccentricity and dark humor of In Bruges but, sadly, also has the inconsistency and over-the-top-ness that dragged down Seven Psychopaths.
Set in the titular town of Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh’s current film stars Frances McDormand as Mildred, a mother still grieving over the brutal rape/murder of her daughter from a year earlier. Frustrated by the lack of what she perceives as effort on the part of the Ebbing Police Department to find the killer, Mildred purchases space on three billboards outside of town designed to humiliate and motivate the police into working harder on the case. The billboards end up having a ripple effect throughout the town, from the police chief to Mildred’s own family. For Mildred, however, nothing is more important than finding justice, consequences be damned.
It is the consequences, however, that are the exact point. Mildred’s actions and relentless pursuit of truth drive a wedge into the heart of this small town, causing emotional and literal upheaval in sometimes comic and sometimes tragic ways. It is in the intersection of comic and tragic and often violent where McDonagh is at his best. It’s an odd emotional experience to be crying, laughing and wincing in the space of fifteen minutes, but that is McDonagh’s real gift. He is able to create a world where anything goes and nothing feels out of place.
What allows McDonagh’s freestyle brilliance to shine is the casting of eternally awesome Frances McDormand. An actress known for playing no-nonsense characters devoid of sentimentality but chock full of humanity, McDormand is the perfect actress to carry a movie about anger, sorrow, bitterness and independence. And nobody is better at delivering a dryly comedic line. She is everything in this movie—it would be nothing without her and this comic, tragic, angry and sorrowful performance that is one of her best.
But while McDormand’s performance is the best part of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the least effective is McDonagh’s own overindulgence, his tendency to overstuff his movies and this one is no different. There are just too many things that happen that feel over-the-top and too many character developments that are difficult to accept.
That being said, though some of the characters are inconsistently drawn, the performances throughout this movie are beyond criticism. McDonagh has stocked Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with his usual stable of actors that he’s worked with before, including Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Zeljko Ivanek, Abbie Cornish and Peter Dinklage, as well as first-timers Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes. Every single performance is effective and moving, especially Harrelson and Rockwell, whose raw emotional vulnerabilities play perfect counterparts to McDormand’s calculated stoicism.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may not be perfect—in fact, we could talk for days about the places where the screenplay goes off the rails—but, in the end, McDormand’s performance, along with McDonagh’s freewheeling style make it a truly worthwhile 2 hours to spend in the theatre.