The Hippo


Dec 12, 2019








Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (R)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (R)
Film Reviews by Amy Diaz

By Amy Diaz

 A woman mourning the loss of her daughter and angry that her murderer hasn’t been caught picks a fight with her local police in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) buys the ad space on three billboards on a country road not far from her house: “Raped while dying,” “and still no arrests” and “how come, Chief Willoughby?” say the three signs. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the police chief of Ebbing, is not unsympathetic to Mildred’s situation. He is also frustrated that there has been no arrest for the crime. But he’s had other problems to deal with in his department, including an often alluded to (but never fully explained) situation where a younger police officer, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), apparently tortured an African-American. And he’s dying — diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he isn’t expected to live much longer.
Willoughby isn’t as knee-jerk angry about the signs as others on the force, including Dixon and an older sergeant (Zeljko Ivanek). They hassle Mildred and the advertising agent, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), who sells the billboard space. 
Mildred’s family also isn’t thrilled with her actions. Her teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) tells her the billboards depress him — he purposefully hadn’t read the police reports and so didn’t know the exact details of his sister’s death until reading the billboards. Charlie (John Hawkes), her ex-husband who is an ex-cop, doesn’t like the billboards either, though her dim view of Charlie (she reminds her son that Charlie used to hit her, and now he dates a very young, not-so bright woman whose role is one of this movie’s discordant notes) leads Mildred to discount his objections. And she does have some support — from her friend Denise (Amanda Warren) and James (Peter Dinklage, as always, giving the movie significantly more than it gives him to work with), a guy who is interested in her even if the feeling isn’t returned.
In what almost feel like separate movies, Willoughby deals with his illness and the effect it has on his family — wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and their two daughters — and Dixon, meanwhile, cares for his bullying mother (Sandy Martin, in a character whose purpose doesn’t seem entirely thought out) and at times earnestly seems to want to be a good police officer even if he has a lot of stupid in both his personality and his mindset to work through.
Three Billboards feels like two, maybe three, trying-for-Oscar performances from totally decent actors surrounded by a lot of stuff the author didn’t feel all that confident about or think about long enough. (McDormand, Rockwell and maybe Harrelson, by the way, would be the actors here who seem like they’re trying for Important Movie Role recognition. They turn in somewhat above average performances with very average material.) At several points in this movie I found myself thinking “I don’t always appreciate how hard it is to write a story that sticks together” and “dialogue is harder to write than it appears.” This being the sign both that I’ve been set up to think this would be an Important Movie and of how uneven it is.
McDormand does a good job with this role, a good job maybe 70 percent of the time. But it isn’t a flawless good job. She makes Mildred a devastated, angry, deeply wounded woman who still has moments of humor and kindness. She crafts a fully formed person who more often than not (but not always) feels right for her time, place, age and situation. But at times I can see McDormand doing it. I can see the seams of this costume. Because I found myself thinking so much of the writing, I’m going to place most of the blame there. There are a few moments that are sharply off to me, of conversation that feels not just stagy but untrue both to these people and people in general. Because McDormand is so much the center of this movie, it sticks out with her character the most, but you can see it in other places — a series of voice-overs by Harrelson’s character, for glaring example. There is also an exchange between Willoughby and his wife that feels so, just, off as natural speech that it takes you out of the moment.
Three Billboards also doesn’t feel like it knows where it wants to go. Of all the characters here, it’s arguably Dixon who feels the most developed. He has an arc (it’s a simplistic arc, villainy to less villainy, but it arcs), Rockwell always seems to know what he’s doing with him and his story goes somewhere, narratively. With Mildred, the movie sets up the initial scenario — daughter’s murder, billboard-based battle with police — but then doesn’t seem to know where it wants her to go or exactly what kind of person it wants her to be. I had a similar feeling to her as I did to Denzel Washington’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. performance, which is that I had the sense that the actors understood who they wanted the character to be but the movie was unsure.
A side note: I don’t usually seek out other critics’ reviews about movies until well after I’ve not only seen the movie but finished writing my review. But the very high Rotten Tomatoes score (something in the 90s the last time I looked) and the fact that NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour teased that some of their commentators disagreed with that number led me to give it a listen after I found myself wondering why my feelings were so different than the aggregated mass of criticdom. The complaints of the PCHH-ers were many and legitimate, including that the movie does a bad job in its portrayal of race and domestic violence. I agree and I go back to the way the story and the dialogue are written. So much feels so inauthentic, to include not just race and domestic violence but its female characters in general. And, backing up the podcast discussion about how lacking in nuance this movie is, I feel like further evidence that this movie has some basic writing problems is how much telling over showing it does. We don’t guess at anybody’s character; it’s explained to us and then we get a very direct demonstrations of it. (Always worth a listen, the Pop Culture Happy Hour episode about this movie is definitely worth seeking out.)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a tone (which seemed to occasionally veer into “one man stands alone”-style Western) that was promising and a good cast. There are moments when a note of righteous anger or deeply felt kindness pops up that feels like it comes from a real place. I found myself thinking of the much better, much rawer Wind River while watching this movie. Without achieving that movie’s level of success, this movie does exist in some of the same emotional territory. But the wobbly story and the uneven dialogue keep the movie from really landing its punches. C+
Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual references, according to the MPAA. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an hour and 55 minutes long and distributed by Fox Searchlight. 


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