* * 1/2
Martin McDonagh’s new black comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri takes a big swing. It tackles a lot of Very American Questions, but, as with Seven Psychopaths (2012), it feels like an America conceived by an outsider (McDonagh was born in London). It’s better than Psychopaths, which was dreadful, but doesn’t come close to topping McDonagh’s debut feature In Bruges (2008), which remains his masterwork (and a tough bar, admittedly).
The new film concerns a grieving mother, played with typical tenacity by Frances McDormand, who buys space on three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, to challenge local authorities on their seeming disinterest in a tragic, unsolved crime involving her family. In doing so she stirs up a hornet’s nest, spinning two very different police officers, played by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, on two very different paths.
Rockwell gets a supremely meaty role here, getting to play very stupid, very mean, very violent and very drunk, before surprisingly finding a significantly larger arc. This arc, however, is almost defiantly difficult to swallow, and the messages of the movie, such as there are, are obscured by the contrivances. Even in this rather comic book world, where redemption can lay in a glass of orange juice, we’re asked to suspend our disbelief – and our sense of character – too much.
The most potent ingredient of the film is Harrelson’s trajectory, which has nuance, compassion and warmth lacking elsewhere. Woody is in typically good form, and his support mechanisms – the house and household he’s been provided, including a young wife (Abbie Cornish, playing the only Australian to choose to live in Missouri), two daughters and some horses – serve him well. He plays troubled authority as comfortably as Jeff Bridges or the late James Garner.
The film’s screenplay, however, seems to keep buckling, crumpling and, occasionally, lying. The entry into the plot halfway through of a character played by Clarke Peters feels like a cheat, but there’s a whopping bigger one to come that many audiences, I imagine, simply won’t stand for. And McDonagh’s direction is odd; he and his editor, John Gregory, seem to lock off their work on any given scene with one final pass still to go, so we are left with awkward, silent moments that feel like they’re not meant to be there.
Quentin Tarantino remains the master of filmmakers tackling Big Ideas – including Race – with black humour, offbeat plotting and wry dialogue. McDonagh still exists in the master’s shadow. His humour isn’t as funny, his plots are too contrived, and the dialogue isn’t as wry as it thinks it is. I was propelled from scene to scene during Three Billboards, even as I found each of them to be annoyingly imperfect: blueprints for better versions of themselves, if given another draft or pass, some more time and care.