Martin McDonagh has wowed critics and audiences with his most recent feature “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” With a solid cast and a pretty good track record of successfully interweaving the dark and hilariously funny into great cinema, McDonagh has reached again for the high bar he’s set himself.
Following the perfect balance of In Bruges (2008) and the mixed, but overly positive reception of Seven Psychopaths (2012), the hype surrounding Three Billboards primed audiences for McDonagh at his best. So much of the film hits the mark. Frances McDormand gives an outstanding performance (as we’ve come to expect). Her comic timing is on point, while still remaining heartfelt and fiery. Sam Rockwell’s contemptable and bigoted character is minimally flawed but overall, he brings his usual solid performance, however uncomfortable it may have felt to allow him some sort of redemption towards the end.
The pace of the film suggests that it’s another “doesn’t do much but says a lot” endeavour, and perhaps that was what McDonagh intended. However instead, what is served up is more: “doesn’t do much, doesn’t say much, and what it does start to say, it skims over and look: there’s Sam Rockwell playing a racist yokel and listening to Abba.”
Three Billboards grapples with issues that struggle to lend themselves to the dark humour that has worked so well for McDonagh in that past. The film does, however shine a light on the complacency even now, with issues surrounding race and sexual abuse and the flippant reactions to these types of issues that are still prevalent today. An interesting story to pursue, but one that doesn’t quite break through the marginally stereotyped characters and setting.
The overarching feeling at the end of the film is that of responsibility and blame. Woody Harrelson’s character, Willloughby is singled out as the face of the authorities; Red (Caleb Landry Jones) is targeted as the face of advertising and an unknown offender is hunted down as an individual representing a collective. In the world of the film, all of these people are “culpable” (McDormand’s finest moment) whether or not they are directly involved in the specific events explored. There’s a need for a face and a name to be linked to these events. Something the characters can see, control and hold accountable.
What McDonagh has achieved is a subtle comment on issues surrounding race, sex and the human condition in a culture that is fearful of an increasingly real possibility of political powers that be and those part of “the gang” stunting the socio-cultural growth of the Western World but also fear of the realisation that it may have not come as far as it thought.
To see why it was acclaimed so highly is understandable, however Three Billboards seems to be a somewhat mediocre film supported and raised above the bar by its extremely talented cast rather than the story itself.