The story is visible in and through the eyes of Frances McDormand.
In the first minutes, we can see a plan forming behind them, a plan that will take us, her, and the story through a series of emotions. Her eyes are angry and unforgiving; pained and flat and tired; thoughtful, lying, teary, boozy, wondering, wary, hopeful.
Her eyes will reflect—and her actions drive—the plot of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” But to what end? Resignation? Acceptance? Certainly not clear resolution.
Writer-Director McDonagh has larger goals in mind. He’s less interested in solving a crime than he is in showing the transformation of lives. If you know that going in, you’ll be more immersed in the characters—and less disappointed coming out.
Go for McDormand’s performance; it holds the story together and is far superior to anyone else’s in this film.
McDonagh favorites Harrelson and Rockwell (they were in his 2012 “Seven Psychopaths”) are in this movie, and neither is particularly convincing or credible. But their lives, like that of McDormand’s character, Mildred, will all be changed in this two-hour tale.
It would have been so helpful if only we liked any one of them just a little bit more.
In the beginning, we can at least understand Mildred’s anger.
It’s been seven months since her daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), was killed; still, law enforcement has no suspects and seems to have lost interest. She blames Police Chief Willoughby (Harrelson).
“The buck stops at Willoughby,” she believes. “Billboards will concentrate their minds.”
She pays for three of them on a little-traveled road outside the small Missouri town where she lives. They read: “Raped While Dying.” “Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
Direct. Compelling. Not illegal or a character assassination. But they have immediate, incendiary and unintended consequences.
Instead of focusing attention on the crime, they bring unwanted attention to Mildred. The chief is beloved; she’s criticizing a town hero. The parish pastor, the local dentist, the other cops, the media—even kids in school—go on the attack against her.
The story quickly settles on three characters: Mildred, Officer Dixon (Rockwell) and the chief. They’re each wrestling with their own demons.
Mildred has lost her husband (John Hawkes) to a teenage fling (Samara Weaving). Dixon is a violent, often-drunk mama’s boy who can’t control his impulses or temper. Willoughby has serious personal issues.
The three billboards provide the catalyst that brings all problems to the surface in random acts of violence—hey, this is McDonagh film; he loves violence—and enable each to resolve them in individual ways.
The performances are competent, but never quite empathetic. They all ratchet out of control.
McDormand is convincing as a weary woman at the end of the line, trying to put together a plan to unload her guilt and reassemble her future. As she becomes increasingly irrational, we appreciate her anger, but she keeps losing our support by her decisions.
Despite his violent actions, Rockwell never really convinces us that he’s frightening—or drunk. He seems somewhat random. And Harrelson, who was so good in “LBJ” and “The Glass Castle,” can’t quite find the “loving-husband-dad” in his role here.
In fact, McDonagh’s writing has put limitations on virtually all of his characters. He’s made the young girls (Weaving and Kerry Condon) into pretty airheads and the two articulate black characters—Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson), the billboard painter; and Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), a police chief— into heroes without defect.
He’s given Peter Dinklage (as James, a would-be suitor) a self-deprecating role in which he’s several times called a “midget.” He’s put characters in situations that can best be called “contrived.”
And he’s assembled them all into a movie that’s never quite clear what it’s trying to be.
A dark comedy? A crime drama? A character study? A morality tale? There is some of each of those in here, but like the writer-director’s other work— “In Bruges” or “Seven Psychopaths” —it’s often mean-spirited and the characters unlikable.
And in the end, more thought-provoking than satisfying.