Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the new film by Martin McDonagh, begins on the outskirts of a small, Midwestern town. A woman named Mildred (France McDormand) notices a trio of dilapidated billboards lined up in a satisfying grouping. She has an idea. She buys up the ad space for purpose of sending a message to local law enforcement, using confrontational language to call attention to an unsolved crime involving her daughter (played, in flashback, by Kathryn Newton). She wants a reaction. She gets one.
McDonagh’s film follows the tumult stirred by Mildred’s provocation, paying particular attention to way it scalds already fraught relationships with the community. Even without the grief and anger stirred by her child’s murder, Mildred is a challenging, strident individual, prone to tough verbal jujitsu meant to leave other emotionally bruised. Writing that sort of dialogue is McDonagh’s wheelhouse, and McDormand is equally comfortable delivering it. The film almost immediately locks into a groove destined to leave the fans of such material in ravished delight. I’d often consider myself a member of that little clan, but Three Billboards left me cold.
As with McDonagh’s previous feature, Seven Psychopaths, the mechanics of the storytelling are overly clear, like one of those pocket watches with a glass back to show kids how a timepiece works. The film abounds in interesting themes about anger and vengeance and forgiveness, but the screenplay drives every point home with such leaden exactitude that I half-expected the projector to pause, the lights to come out, and a tweedy professor to step out and murmur, “So, let’s discuss.” The didactic quality of the drama makes McDonagh’s penchant for brazenly profane dialogue seem like a cheap affectation, nearly on par with the worst of Quentin Tarantino’s self-congratulatory curse-and-ethnic-slur minefields. The plot also relies on painful improbabilities to drive its dramatic confrontations, another marker of McDonagh problematically discarding narrative discipline in favor of romping intellectual mischief.
McDonagh similarly doesn’t shape the performances effectively. He clearly cast McDormand to do her thing, but some of the biggest moments play poorly, lapsing into the falsehood of showy monologue. As a lunkhead cop (who transforms from racist to basically decent and good-hearted in some act of unseen spiritual alchemy), Sam Rockwell has the same issue in playing a role that’s so tailored to his skills that he sometimes overacts, as if the ease of connecting with the character made him restless. Only Woody Harrelson, as the town’s combative but level-headed police chief, delivers a performance without unseemly divots, in part because he’s one of the only people on screen who seems to remember the value in consistently finding the real person within the stylized dialogue.
I believe I know what McDonagh is trying to say with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I appreciate — and even admire — his message. When it comes right down to it, I’m simply repelled by the way he’s saying it.