Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Edwin Arnaudin: It’s here! It’s here! About a year and a half after sightings of Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage around Asheville and the transformation of Sylva into a fictional midwest town, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is ready to view. Will WNC residents be proud to say the film was shot in their backyards?
Bruce Steele: They already are! The packed preview screening in Sylva we attended last Tuesday earned spontaneous applause for a dramatic crane shot up Sylva’s Main Street, transformed into Ebbing, and lesser bursts for other Jackson County locations. It’s not the easiest movie to love, much less to classify, but the Sylvans went with it all the way to the explicit “thank you” credit in the final seconds. Were you onboard too?
Edwin: I was, though not quite to the rapturous comedic heights of the writer/director’s In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The story of Mildred Hayes (McDormand) demanding justice for her raped and murdered daughter from a lackadaisical police department lead by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is just as dark as those two films, but also more mature — a new direction I think he mostly pulls off.
Bruce: It is dark. McDonagh likes to twist and thwart expectations, and despite its hilarious “Frances McDormand takes no prisoners” trailer, the laughs here are overbalanced by the movie’s principal emotion, which is regret. The chief regrets he can’t solve the case, his hot-headed deputy Dixon (Rockwell) comes to regret his violent outbursts, the billboards’ owner (Caleb Landry Jones) regrets renting them out and Mildred is nearly incapacitated by her own regrets. And I think some viewers will regret that the movie isn’t funnier.
Edwin: Laughter arrives frequently — especially in the case of Dinklage’s “town midget” James, practically all of whose lines are comic gold — but I agree that the underlying heavy subject matter holds it back from being a flat out comedy. It feels like a stepping-stone film for McDonagh, hopefully to greater things. I had a similar reaction to his brother John Michael’s second film Calvary, though a revisit revealed it to be just fine as is: a complex work merely in need of unpacking over multiple viewings. Might a second go-round with Three Billboards likewise iron out its “flaws"?
Bruce: No movie should require two viewings to be appreciated once, but I think if viewers know going in that Three Billboards is less comedy than contemplation, they’ll be happier when they leave. This isn’t traditional Hollywood fare in which the pieces all come together. Nor do the characters snap into place. Many are left barely sketched, including Mildred’s son (Lucas Hedges), her ex-husband (John Hawkes) and his new girlfriend (Samara Weaving). Even Mildred lacks definition beyond her loss and her bad marriage. I think part of the point of the movie is that none of these people can find resolution, which they make up for with rash, overly dramatic gestures. It’s an interesting idea, but is it entertaining?
Edwin: I certainly appreciate Three Billboards and like it a lot after one viewing primarily for its high entertainment value. A revered playwright before turning to film, McDonagh is a gifted wordsmith and hearing his dialogue delivered by some of our best performers is a treat. The film moves well, but I’m with you on those three characters needing more justification for their inclusion and would love to see Mildred drawn in a more complex manner. Did such deficiencies or other factors (say, McDonagh’s filmmaking) hamper your experience?
Bruce: Yes, I was disappointed that a lot of the characters seemed to stall out, with a couple exceptions I won’t name, to avoid spoilers. And there are a lot of criminal acts with no real consequences, which I thought was lazy writing. You’re right about the fine dialogue, but I could have done with fewer punchlines and more punched-up plotting. There’s a fine sequence in the middle involving Harrelson’s sheriff, but after that the movie seems to drift among half-baked ideas until the unexpected alliance that provides a small dose of resolution. I would still recommend it for its several virtues, but it’s not going to earn the adoration of, say, Fargo, another small-town crime comedy with the wonderful Ms. McDormand.
Edwin: Despite its grim tone and touching on such difficult topics as rape and police brutality toward people of color, the whole film feels like a bit of a lark. McDonagh’s inspiration came during a trip through the South nearly 20 years ago when he saw actual billboards expressing a rage comparable to Mildred’s. The gap between spark and follow-through makes me wonder what was lost in the interim years — and if he’s simply better at writing parts for men.
Bruce: I like Mildred and adore McDormand, so I don’t know that it’s a gender thing. I just think McDonagh wanted to paint a portrait an entire small town and wound up juggling too many pins. But I also realize that part of his point is that you can’t always get what you want. That great moment when Mildred confronts three high school kids about who threw a full drink cup at her windshield is a perfect example: She hilariously kicks each of the first two for not answering her question, then she just runs out of steam with the third one and gives up. That’s the template for all these folks: They run hard at what they want, hit a wall and collapse. Then they have to pick themselves up and go on. I get it. I just wish McDonagh put as much creativity into the recovery as he puts into making the failures funny. It gets a B from me.
Edwin: I think Mildred is a good first try at a female lead from someone who until now has relegated women to minuscule supporting roles with about as much screen time as Abbie Cornish receives here as the chief’s wife. And I’m with you on the assessment of these characters’ approach to life. It’s in line with the folks who populate McDonagh’s other films, which I think work better because they focus on the recovery more than the running/wall-hitting. Three Billboards is definitely different in that narrative regard, but despite its uneven results, I’ll still give it a B-plus.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Starts Nov. 22 at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photos: Fox Searchlight)