A posteriori classifying his first feature In Bruges (2008) as a poignant example of beginner’s luck, McDonagh strikes out with Three Billboards in Ebbing Missouri, another solid disappointment casually rolling in behind Seven Psychopaths. Overeager to play the meta card, McDonagh references genre without once approximating the intelligent hybridity of the Coens and Tarantino, which he clearly takes as an example. Any promise the plot might hold runs dry within the first fifteen minutes, after which gratuitous violence and humor that in the best of moods can still only be referred to as banal mar the remaining 100 minutes. The only manner in which Three Billboards seems to assert itself, is its triteness. To quote the movie itself, “nobody uses that road anymore except for retards.”
Essentially, the entire thing is in bad taste. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards along a deserted Missouri road to redirect the attention of the local police force to the investigation of her daughter’s brutal murder. The first of the billboards addresses the terminally ill Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), whom she holds accountable for the unsolved case. A pointless parade of over-determined scenes ensues to lose its way entirely in the (thankfully) non-existent town of Ebbing, Missouri.
Every kink in the road consists of some kind of offense one of the parties imparts on the other and none of the events seem to truly produce any kind of real progression. The boorish police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), for example, decides to lock up Mildred Hayes’s African American friend for possession to pressure her into taking down the billboards – on the advice of his ever present and inconceivably stereotypical mother. The woman is again released because of a fault in the arrest warrant. Despite characterizing the police as inefficient if not entirely inadequate – something that was already made outrageously obvious – the action serves no purpose. If what McDonagh’s trying to get across is the stagnancy of life in the south, he sure does a great job of making his arguments irrelevant through the offensively banal way he interacts with the social clichés in place as well as the Western tropes he hauls into the film without actually giving them a place.
The aimless, ill-conceived nods to the Western genre get stuck in unforgivably hackneyed characterization. The costuming – one of the more outspoken stylistic choices – looks generic without soliciting self-commentary. Furthermore, the choice to have Mildred wear the same pair of overalls for the entire movie is never clarified in any way, making it just another instance of the comic book-like inclination of the film – one character, one outfit. Stylistic inadequacies, however, prevented this spectator from contextualizing and appreciating the work from that viewpoint.
Horridly out-of-place accents and one-dimensional dialogue, laced with poorly motivated and poetryless profanity painfully underscore the monumental distance between McDonagh’s achievement and the refinement of works like Raising Arizona (Ethan & Joel Coen, 1987) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994). In desperately trying to find his own version of the Coens’ and Tarantino’s distinctive linguistic register, he seems to steer away from the power of his earlier work: work in which the seesawing motion between human sentiment and brusque farce was balanced. The grotesque that used to have its time and place and – as a result – due effect, has overthrown the movie.
Not only is the use of types bland and void of a nuanced self-criticism, the acting style this film sports is an uncomfortable fit, disengaging to say the least. Alliances are made without feasible motivations. Relationships seem to only exist on paper: no sentiment is transferred; it is only the presentation of human connection, not an enactment. The unexplained understanding between Hayes and Willoughby might be the least off-putting social interaction throughout the film, but in its superficial chumminess becomes equally distasteful.
In some moments of lukewarm ambition, the film makes a tawdry attempt at character development, resulting in Mildred Hayes suddenly putting aside her anger after her abusive ex-husband imparts on her the wisdom his dense 19 year old girlfriend picked up from a bookmark: “anger begets more anger.” Town simpleton officer Dixon also gets a moral make-over when Willoughby expresses his belief in his inner goodness in the letter that is their last exchange. The film ends with an unlikely alliance between Hayes and Dixon. The simple conditionality of these developments works poorly in the larger body of choices and references, making the film harrowing in its complacency.