Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson. Directed by Martin McDonagh. Rated R. Now playing in select theaters.
Starting with its overly precious title, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is quite taken with its own cleverness, often to the detriment of storytelling and characterization. Writer-director McDonagh’s third film has more genuine humanity than his first two (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths), but the British playwright still overwrites nearly every line of dialogue, creating characters who are mouthpieces for their creator’s wit rather than recognizable human beings.
That hip, detached tone was appropriate for a meta-comedy like Seven Psychopaths, but Three Billboards presents itself as a grounded, sympathetic story about mistreated working-class Americans. Chief among them is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a gift-shop clerk and divorced mother grieving the death of her teenage daughter, who was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant months earlier. Angry that the local police have been unable to find the perpetrator, she rents the titular billboards, filling them with an outraged message targeted at town police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
Even with a murdered daughter, the salty, confrontational Mildred is tough to sympathize with; as Willoughby explains, the cops have done everything in their power to find her daughter’s killer, and Willoughby himself is a patient and fair man. Mildred is so clearly in the wrong that McDonagh has to put her against the racist, homophobic and mean-spirited Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) just to make her seem compassionate and reasonable by comparison. Willoughby is a one-dimensional saint who exits the story early, and McDonagh then attempts a redemption arc for the mismatched pair of Mildred and Dixon, unconvincingly in both cases.
The strong performances smooth over some of the rough spots in the characterization, but they’re not enough to make up for the shifts in motivation and tone, with the movie frequently veering abruptly from snide comedy to intense drama. There are themes of grief, empathy and the hollowness of revenge, but they mostly get buried under sarcastic, wordy quips and sudden, unpleasant plot developments (many of which are dropped just as suddenly). For every genuine emotion that McDonagh evokes, he can’t resist undercutting it by showing off.