Thursday, 4 January 2018

Review: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Cert: 15 / 115 mins / Dir. Martin McDonagh / Trailer

The year may be a new one, but the pattern’s familiar enough. Among the Ever-So-Worthy awards contenders currently queuing to fill up the cinema screens comes a smattering of smaller, more quirky fare, often ushered in by a familiar fanfare and the Fox Searchlight ident*1. And the first of these out of the gate (round my way, at least) is Martin McDonagh’s ode to small-town American unrest, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a bereaved mother who rents the titular billboards as a way to antagonise a local police force who are showing no signs of progress in apprehending her daughter’s killer. Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby (the named recipient of the above message), and the supporting cast includes Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Peter Dinklage and Abbie Cornish.

It’s quite (intentionally) funny. It’s also very (intentionally) dark. But from the writer/director behind In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, that’s only to be expected. What you might also expect, however, is for the two to be blended together, the biting sardonic humour relieving the tension of a screenplay which touches not only on murder, but also rape, racism, police brutality, domestic violence, arson and more murder. What actually happens is that the gags themselves are closer to profane-farce and sit alternated with these events, so that the audience is never quite sure what the overall tone is meant to be.

It’s this division which proves to be the film’s undoing. Far from feeling complex or challenging, Three Billboards just comes off as convoluted and needlessly provocative. The script hopes to shock with either the bleakness of its actions or inappropriateness of its laughs, and while it often succeeds on both fronts, it’s an uneven affair.

All credit where it's due though, this is a compelling two hours of watching horrible characters trying to out-do each other’s awfulness in a claustrophobic setting. Even Mildred, whose side we are definitely on, tests our patience making escalatingly bad decisions for what we're assured are the right reasons. The result feels not unlike Twin Town, if it were directed by the Coen Brothers*2.

Three Billboards is an interesting second-draft of something which will be great when McDonagh decides which direction it’s meant to be going…

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Well, Coen Brothers movies, frankly.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Only if you're certain you'll enjoy it.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Either a rental or wait for the stream.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's not, but that's not to say that everyone here is giving it their all.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
I shouldn't imagine so.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: This film's got Woody 'un-named role in the upcoming Han Solo movie' Harrelson in it.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 I should also confess, before you read this review any further, that it’s entirely possible that I just wasn’t in the most receptive of moods for Three Billboards, as I'd sat with narrowed eyes through the preceding trailers for Downsizing, The Shape Of Water and Isle Of Dogs , three upcoming movies which should at least interest, if not downright intrigue, me. So if you get to the end of this post and you’re like “oh you humourless get, can’t you enjoy anything?”, the answer is ”probably not after my first day back at work following the Christmas break, when I’m even more tired than I was when I finished on Dec 22nd, no”. The points I go on to make about the film still stand, I just probably wasn’t as forgiving of them as I could have been. Which is why I'm writing this on my blog and not for Empire, or something. [ BACK ]

*2 I expect to see many reviews comparing Three Billboards to the Coens’ output, and not necessarily for the best reasons. But Joel and Ethan know that restraint can be more powerful than excess in a screenplay. It looks like Martin has yet to reach that page in the handbook. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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