Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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5Feb/180

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

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The police of Ebbing, Missouri drag their feet on the investigation into the rape and murder of Mildred's daughter.  Tired of waiting on them to give her any information, she rents three billboards guaranteed to draw attention just where the police don't want it.  Martin McDonagh wrote the screenplay for and directs Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.

The McDonagh brothers are agonizing and brilliant, sometimes flipping between these modes from one scene to the next.  John Michael McDonagh annoyed me with The Guard, then created a powerful testament to faith in CalvaryMartin McDonagh, who wrote the screenplay for and directed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (shortening to Three Billboards moving on), crafted a gorgeous ode to Bruges with In Bruges then plastered Seven Psychopaths with just enough meta-awareness to be infuriating.  "Too clever by half" doesn't cut it with the McDonaghs as they've got the skill to back up their writing, but it's not far from the sometimes exhausting experience watching their work.

Three Billboards is often too clever.  There's one moment Penelope (Samara Weaving) walks in on a domestic violence situation and starts rambling about how she needs to use the bathroom but the moment looks, "inconvenient," only to talk more about how she's looking after the, "disabled's horses" since she lost her job.  This highlights two big concerns about Three Billboards.  The first is that Martin's often funny dialogue cuts against the emotional core of some scenes in a way that distracts from their power.  The second is how Martin's cavalier approach to disability and race as he stretches too far to make clever use of still-damaging slurs (heavy shades of brother John's The Guard here.)

Three Billboards is consistently excellent when Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson bounce off each other's pain.

These are severe problems with Three Billboards, and in any other film they might have sunk the experience entirely.  That doesn't happen with Three Billboards due to the overwhelming affective power of the remaining drama.  I won't debate with anyone who hates Three Billboards as there's good cause to hate it.  But I'm not going to lie about the tears that Martin's writing, combined with stellar performances from Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, ripped from my eyes in Three Billboards' most powerful scenes.

One of Martin's strengths is his ability to separate the fat from the meat of his creative works.  Multiple scenes in Three Billboards head straight to their dramatic punch by getting rid of the arguments or surprises that lesser films would dwell on.  There's a great early example of this when Willoughby (Harrelson) confronts Mildred (McDormand) and tries to get her to take down her billboards by admitting he has cancer.  Martin forgoes the usual sob story by having Mildred reply with a curt, "I know it. Everybody knows it."  I admire this as one person's suffering is too often used as an excuse for someone else's.  This cuts both ways, leading to a painful repeat of their confrontation where Willoughby's pain interrupts his confident posturing so viscerally that he destroys Mildred's hard exterior.

The initial confrontation is also a moment that highlights Martin's ability to suggest emotional barriers through the visuals.  Martin keeps the camera at a far enough distance away from Mildred to frame her in her daughter's swingset, the firm metal bars keeping Willoughby at bay.  When it seems Willoughby is about to break through they share the space, only for Mildred's cutting remark to put the barrier back up with Martin adjusting the shot slightly to put a background swingset bar between the two.  Something as simple as a swingset provides complex pivoting points throughout Three Billboards and it's just as important who is separated by its bars as it is who Mildred allows in.

This all builds up to the complicated case of Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell in full clueless monster mode, and who I feel the brunt of arguments about Three Billboards will center around.  I'm no fan of Rockwell and his happy-go-lucky racist is so jarring that he seems to have come from 1917 instead of 2017.  He's so distracting in his cartoonish evil he nearly derails arguably the best scene in Three Billboards opposite Red (Caleb Landry Jones.)  Jones' tenderness and empathy brought me to tears my eyes wanted to take back the second Rockwell started talking again.

John Hawkes is one of the many bit players who push Three Billboards outside clever and into dramatically engaging.

There's also the matter of how poorly Martin handles representation, specifically with James - the "town midget."  Peter Dinklage has been a reliable hand at putting dignity into roles that reduce him to his dwarfism, but Martin's dialogue with bits like, "I'm going to go use the little boys room."  It's a needless bit of cleverness masked, to near success, by Dinklage's self-effacement in his performance.  Martin has a slightly better grasp on the racial front with a strong bit part for Clarke Peters doing his best Sidney Poitier, though even in the realms of creative writing the idea sign laborer Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson) insulting Dixon and getting away clean is a stretch too far.

Martin said that Three Billboards was inspired by billboards he saw of an unsolved crime, and to the extent his film deals with that he's working on the highest dramatic level.  It's just his grasp of local flavor and representation in cinema could use a bit of touching up.  If it weren't for those blemishes, Three Billboards might have been one of the best films I've seen.  As it is, there are moments that stirred me greatly, but the flaws are so glaring they're impossible to ignore.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Martin McDonagh.
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.

Posted by Andrew

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