Occasionally I’ll chide a film for having characters that don’t sound like real people, but that criticism only applies if naturalism was the goal of the writer. There are instances when we don’t want characters to sound like real people. If I go see a work by David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin, or Quentin Tarantino, you bet your ass I don’t want to hear ‘real people talk.’ I want characters to talk distinctively, idiosyncratically—to be funnier or more witty than I ever could when speaking extemporaneously.
Same with Martin McDonagh. No one in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri talks like a real-life person, and thank god. I want his characters to talk in a way that sounds a little dumb but is actually pretty clever, punctuated by beautiful bits of poetic profanity. McDonagh’s debut, In Bruges, took poetic profanity to new heights, and was one of the best films of 2008. I didn’t quite respond to Seven Psychopaths the same way, but decided I’d forgive his sophomore slump if his junior outing made up for it.
It does. Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a divorcée reeling from the rape and murder of her daughter, Angela. So far, the police of Ebbing have no suspects, and nothing resembling a lead. Mildred has heard that one of the officers over at the station got into trouble for roughing up a black man, and thinks that effort would be better spent on her case. Frustrated, she goes to a local advertising agency and rents out three billboards, which she uses to admonish the cops for their behaviour and spur them into action. The signs sit on the edge of town, reading ‘RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS? / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?’ like the gloomiest Burma-Shave advert ever.
If you’ve seen the trailers for Three Billboards, you may have the wrong idea about what to expect. They seem to frame McDonagh’s film as Grieving Mildred vs Lazy, Racist Cops, but it’s much more subtle than that. His characters may not talk like real people, but they sure do act like real people. For starters, Mildred’s no peach; she’s crass and unapologetic, and sometimes resorts to straight up assaulting people she feels have wronged her. Her Billboards cause a ruckus in Ebbing, and we get to see quite the colourful cast of characters react to them.
Woody Harrelson plays Police Chief Willoughby, and he seems genuinely hurt by Mildred’s actions. The murderer left behind seemingly no clues, and the DNA collected from Angela’s body didn’t match anyone in any database. The trail went dead quickly, so what can he do? He divides his time and energy between spending time with his family and slowly dying of cancer—two priorities higher on his list than poking a cold case.
Three Billboards is one of those films where pretty much every actor in every role, no matter how minor, is memorable. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband, who has left her for a woman less than half her age. Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son tries to navigate the social ostracism he feels from having a murdered sister and a mother dead set on antagonising the town. Caleb Landry Jones plays the befuddled bumpkin who can’t find a reason not to rent the billboards to Mildred. And the always-welcome Peter Dinklage plays an alcoholic car dealer with an inexplicable crush on Mildred. There are plenty more characters I’ll leave it to you to discover.
Sam Rockwell rounds out the cast, in maybe his the best role. He’s Jason Dixon, the cop who roughed up the black guy. He’s got severe anger issues, clearly, which come to a head when he tosses Jones’s character out of a second storey window. This isn’t particularly dignified behaviour for a cop and soon results in him not being a cop anymore. He winds up sad, unemployed, day-drinking with his mother. From this nadir, Rockwell claws his way up to try for some kind of redemption; his is the most fascinating character arc. Rockwell gives his strongest and most mature performance, and it’ll be a tragedy if the Academy doesn’t recognise it.
As great as I think most of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is, I can’t shake the feeling that much of it feels a bit unformed, like a sketch of an idea. To some extent, this messiness is the point—life isn’t predictable, and we fill it with dead ends and unexpected asides. As distinctive as the characters are, none seems to have much of a personality beyond what the actors bring to them. This might sound like a hollow criticism given the talented cast. But overall, I sense something haphazard about it, like McDonagh made it up as he went along, and never went back to polish his material.
But the worst thing about Three Billboards is that godawful, disgraceful CGI deer. There’s a mercifully brief scene where a deer wanders into the field where the billboards stand, and to be honest it seems to have wandered over from Disney’s Bambi. Would it really have been so difficult to rent a real, living deer for a day of shooting? Because I have to tell you, it’s so unrealistic that it breaks the spell of the movie, and it’s a while before it recovers. McDonagh should have just cut the scene—it’s not particularly relevant to the plot or theme. Dear directors: bad CGI never works. STOP IT. NOW.
These aren’t minor quibbles, but they don’t stop Three Billboards from being a potent experience. It’s very moving, digging deep to make grand points about human nature, but never stops being entertaining and often uproariously funny. In a year full of predictable movies that rehash things we’ve seen before, it’s nice to find one with such lofty ambitions. That it largely succeeds is a happy achievement.