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Subversive homesick blues

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ isn’t bad, but it is overhyped

Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Despite having only written and directed three under-the-radar films in the last nine years, Martin McDonagh has built a cult following with his Tarantino-by-way-of-Guy Ritchie crime comedies—namely 2008’s “In Bruges” and 2012’s “Seven Psychopaths.”

With “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” McDonagh adopts a provincial, Coen Brothers vibe with the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was brutally murdered and raped. The crime has gone unsolved for a year and she’s out of patience with the local law.

Noticing three derelict billboards on the edge of town, Mildred conscripts their owner, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) to host a Bob Dylan-esque, cue-card message: “Raped while dying.” “And still no arrests.” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), along with his deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a boorish drunk who lives with his needy mother, takes issue with the signage—leading to a sort of civil war where each of them begins to break down emotionally for disparate reasons.

Willoughby thinks he’s hiding a cancer diagnosis, though everyone in town already knows—and which doesn’t sway Mildred’s insistence that he find her daughter’s killer.

Her relationship with her still-living son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), suffers from her zero-fucks-given crusade for justice and her bitterness towards Robbie’s father (John Hawkes), who moved on to greener, 20-year-old pastures.

Unsubtle, almost ham-fisted indictments of religion, the law (or those who enforce it, at least), and small-town, familial dysfunction are totally fine by me, but—like Harrelson’s cancer confession—here they often feel obtuse and pandering.  Mic drops and contemporary socio-political Molotov cocktails are meant to get you to root for largely unsympathetic, superficial—though well-acted—characters.

Despite the terrible death of her daughter, the script does little to give Mildred any complexity or reason to empathize with her. At least until she joins forces with the contemptible Dixon—arcs that (kinda sorta) stick the landing in a satisfying way.

It’s really the tone of the film—a quirky black comedy that can’t quite commit to its misanthropic nature because it misappropriates the drama at its heart—that muddies the water, diluting the potency of otherwise standout performances from McDormand, Rockwell, Harrelson, and Peter Dinklage, as well as Caleb Landry Jones.

Which isn’t to say “Three Billboards” is a bad movie. It’s just an overhyped one.

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