Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: False Advertising, by Tyler Smith
I recently heard that Martin McDonagh, when writing a script, never writes a second draft. He hammers out a single draft and then goes about getting it produced, either on stage or screen. This was astonishing to me, especially when considering his darkly comic masterpiece In Bruges, which has one of the better screenplays of the last ten years. However, upon watching his new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I absolutely believe it. While this film has its strengths, it feels so unfocused, so meandering, and so very pleased with itself, that it not only feels like a first draft, but one written by somebody that has very little experience. It’s a film that is incredibly broad in one scene, then needlessly eclectic in another. It deals in character archetypes and then relies heavily on the actors to bring any sense of reality into them. It is a mess of a film that is only occasionally salvaged, not by its self-satisfied director, but by his collaborators. What a disappointment.
The story kicks off with Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) putting up three inflammatory billboards outside her small Missouri town. These billboards address the violent rape and murder of Mildred’s teenage daughter a year before, which remains unsolved by the local sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). This causes controversy in the town, as Willoughby is very popular amongst the townspeople. Caught up in the story are temperamental cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell), advertising man Red (Caleb Landry Jones), Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), and shy James (Peter Dinklage).
This is a very talented cast, and many of them are able to transcend McDonagh’s scattershot writing. A specific standout is Sam Rockwell, who manages to take the disparate elements of his character – who seems a complete idiot in one scene and an oddly self-aware introvert the next – and tie them all together to create a complex and enigmatic oaf, who we are somehow rooting for even as he acts monstrously towards his fellow townspeople. Woody Harrelson also comes out ahead, playing a character that is charming, authoritative, and vaguely tragic. Admittedly McDonagh doesn’t seem to step wrong with the Willoughby character (aside from the occasional bursts of ill-timed profanity, which are played for too-obvious laughs). The character could’ve been a standard, two-dimensional villain, but McDonagh chooses instead to make him so sympathetic that I wouldn’t say he even counts as an antagonist. It’s always a pleasure to watch Harrelson on screen, and he sinks his teeth into the part, making Willoughby a fundamentally-decent, but undeniably complex, man.
Then there’s Frances McDormand, one of my favorite actresses working today. Her offbeat approach to even the most straightforward material has made for some of the most endearing characters in recent memory, with Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson chief among them. McDormand has always had a no-nonsense quality to her, allowing her to play tough-talking broads with the best of them. So it is with a heavy heart that I say that there’s really nothing particularly special about her performance as Mildred. She commits to the character, and is able to seize upon every laugh line. But, unfortunately, I feel like her character doesn’t really add up to much, which I once again blame on a half-baked screenplay.
Mildred suffers from what I’ve come to call “Erin Brockovich Syndrome”, in which all the characters around her seem to understand that they aren’t the lead of the film. Instead, their job is to tee up Mildred for clever one-liners and dramatic monologues. They are never to make a valid point or cause thoughtful introspection within Mildred. She is the hero and every scene must reinforce this, often at the cost of full development of other characters. As such, it never feels like Mildred changes much. Even in those moments when she acknowledges that she’s made mistakes, they are never quite as bad as those made by the people around her, and thus she never seems to really learn anything.
McDonagh likely would’ve realized this if he weren’t so busy trying to do a dozen things at once. The film attempts to be a meditation on grief, a quirky comedy, and a biting satire. This isn’t necessarily impossible, but it requires a lot more deliberation and self discipline than McDonagh was apparently willing to exercise. Instead, he just threw all of these elements at the wall and simply assumed they all stuck.
I don’t meant to imply that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a bad film. It isn’t. McDonagh is still an intensely-talented writer, so even a flawed script will have effective moments. And besides that, there are several performances in the film that have stayed with me, Rockwell’s and Harrelson’s especially.
No, my problem isn’t that the film is bad. It’s that it could have been so much better. With this cast, and a story that is inherently powerful, this film could have been one of the best of the year, perhaps on par with Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Instead we have a good film that in many ways was sabotaged by its director’s complacency, until it eventually became the amorphous mess that it is.