It's pretty much a given that in the course of watching and writing about hundreds of movies a year, there will be various critical dissents: Films which you believe are exemplary and a top-10 lock (let's say Andrew Dominik's criminally underappreciated Killing Them Softly), that the vast majority of the critical community despises; or, a film that everyone else seems to adore, but leaves you cold as a cadaver.
It is this latter response, as you might imagine, that best describes my reaction to Martin McDonagh's much-lauded Toronto International Film Festival audience winner, which takes a premise that seems misguided at best, and forcibly pushes it through its various twists and turns to arrive at a morally bankrupt conclusion I personally found repellent, but apparently plays very well with a majority of audience members.
To begin with, understand that McDonagh began his career as a playwright, and you can see the ways in which he loves scenes set between oddly mismatched characters, where his striking dialogue can carry the dramatic heft of a given interaction. His feature directorial debut, In Bruges, starred Colin Farrell (every oddball director's favorite muse, it would seem) as a guilt-stricken hit man stuck in a city he desperately wanted to avoid, and featured much of the same deadpan peculiarity and dark humor that McDonagh wants to infuse here.
From that sort of perspective, wanting to craft a dramatic dark comedy where the main protagonist is trying to get justice for her murdered teenage daughter several months before, and overcoming obstacles of faith and propriety along the way, might seem like an engaging challenge, but tonally, it's nearly impossible to make sense of the thing. McDonagh very much wants to have both of these elements in play -- much horrific detail is added to our understanding of the murder, including the girl being raped and set on fire before finally being killed; even as we're meant to burst into laughter at the tight character constructions he puts before us -- but to what end, I couldn't possibly tell you. He gives us a hard-bitten, no nonsense, grieving mother, and blesses her with the ability to find humorous incongruity in nearly everything she encounters.
He certainly has cast it to type. Our protagonist is Mildred, played with deadpan bravado by Frances McDormand, who has made a strong career for herself with just such characters (think Marge from Fargo, only with a less sweetly forgiving disposition). Months after the murder of her child, with no progress made on the case or apprehending the killer, Mildred saunters into the office of Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), who owns the billboards that consecutively line one of the little used roads into town, and pays him cash to post a scathing open letter questioning the county sheriff, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for the world to see.
From this idea, you can imagine a good ol' boy police station, and a corrupt cop who just doesn't care about justice anymore, but here is the first instance of McDonagh anticipating your assumptions and steadfastly doing the opposite: Turns out, Sheriff Willoughby isn't a bad man at all, or disinterested in solving the case, but he is terminally ill, with scant weeks to live, and is trying to spend quality time with his family before slipping this mortal coil.
With the sheriff solidly out of the antagonist realm, McDonagh instead offers up Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist, pig-headed lout, who has already been tagged with one police brutality charge and seems indifferent to the possibility of getting another one. Especially earning his ire is Mildred, mocking his stricken sheriff in front of the whole town. Though, even this villain seems subject to the whimsical turns of McDonagh's fancy, slowly morphing into a different sort of man in the course of the film's running time, all to better make for an ending that suggests vigilantism is not only the best possible solution, but a highly amusing one as well.
You can see what McDonagh wants to accomplish here, but unlike Bruges, which at least worked in relatively subtle ways, all the different color note cards and post-its stuck all over the wall over his desk are oddly visible. So many scenes read like workshop exercises ("Have a conversation between two characters where one of them is genuinely sympathetic and the other just wants to crack wise"), the film's characters, some of whom are agreeably complex, never get much of a chance to breathe. In one scene, with Mildred confronting her ex-husband (John Hawkes) at their old house, the tense encounter with them arguing over the proper procedure of trying to capture their daughter's killer, is interrupted by his ditsy 19-year-old girlfriend, who desperately needs to pee.
The tragi-comedy comes at you from all different tonal directions at once. When it works, it shimmers, but when it doesn't, it yanks you out of the scene completely. As the dispute rises in tension, various other things happen, some of which make tangential sense, others not really terribly much.
As written, McDonagh's script keeps tripping over itself trying to play its confusing mishmash of tones -- for a woman whose only daughter was killed in such a horrendous way, Mildred is almost always able to find the humor in a given moment, no matter how horrible. I guess it's a worthy challenge for a writer as clearly talented as McDonagh, but degree of difficulty points can only take you so far when the finished product can't hang together in any sort of emotionally coherent way. This is one I'll just have to chalk up to the subjectivity of the job, but the film's reported charms mostly elude my grasp.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Samara Weaving, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Sandy Martin, Amanda Warren, Brendan Sexton III, Kerry Condon, Kathryn Newton, Darrell Britt-Gibson
Director: Martin McDonagh
Rating: R, for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
MovieStyle on 12/01/2017
Print Headline: Laugh till you cry; Martin McDonagh uses humor to lighten Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and it’s awkward