This is the classic case of parts being stronger than the sum. While McDormand is great, none of the emotional beats land as intended. Wait for it to hit streaming.
The Good: Frances McDormand, Peter Dinklage, and Sam Rockwell, individually.
Three Billboards would be utterly forgettable fare without the strength of its performances.
Frances McDormand does the heavy lifting, portraying a embittered and burn-the-world-down mother whose daughter’s murder is still not solved. What could have been an understandably one-note character was more nuanced than expected; she is cold and angry, but she’s also vulnerable, conflicted, and often scared. The result is a welcomed complex character.
What else is there to say about Peter Dinklage that hasn’t already been said? He’s always great. He is by far the comedic highlight of this film, and provides an interesting counter-perspective to McDormand’s character.
And then there is Sam Rockwell. He has made a career out of playing this same basic character, but has never quite entered the spotlight for it. We’ll get into this more in the “Ugly” section, but suffice it to say: this is a difficult role to play. Rockwell has always had a particular niche, and while this isn’t the height of that ability (see The Green Mile), it is very good.
The Bad: Tonal shifts that undercut the film, a lack of attention to the protagonist, and too much reliance on stereotypes.
Unfortunately, the bad certainly outweighs the good. The biggest problem is that the movie is too funny to be serious and too serious to be funny. While dark comedy is expected and welcome from director Martin McDonagh, here it simply comes off as jarring.
Adding to this disconcerting feeling is the lack of focus paid to the protagonist. While McDormand’s character is certainly present, much of the film is devoted to the feelings of Woody Harrelson’s character, who exits the film during the second act, and Rockwell’s character. Building on the world and fleshing out characters is never a bad idea, but it comes at the cost of the lead. The audience is not allowed to fully connect to McDormand, or even fully understand her motivations at times.
At its core, this issue may have to do with McDonagh’s disconnect from his subject matter. The film attempts to explore the horrors of police brutality, corrupt power systems, rape culture, systemic racism, fraternal protection, and spousal abuse.
But it does so with caricatures. The racist cop, the small town sheriff everybody loves, the alcoholic dad who runs off with the sexy younger woman, etc.
There is no attempt to explore the depth of these issues beyond what caricatures provide. It is theater, a shadow box of the zeitgeist experiences by rural Americans.
The Ugly: Unnecessary and lazy use of slurs and a grotesque whose victims are invisible.
Hey, here’s some fun tips for writers at any level.
Your character does not have to scream the N-word multiple times to convince us that they are a villain.
Your character does not have to scream the R-word to convince us that they are a villain.
If you are going to pretend to explore the poisonous nature of small town reliance on institutions that abuse their power, then maybe follow that through, instead of focusing on the “goofy” aforementioned villain.
Now, to Sam Rockwell. There have been quite a few critiques of his character, most of which go something like this: Rockwell plays a cop who tortured a black man to death off screen, but the movie tries to redeem him. And that’s bad.
While that critique is understandable, it misses who Rockwell really is; a grotesque, not a villain. This is a character that forces the audience to feel horror and sympathy, often hand in hand. Importantly, they cannot be redeemed. They must suffer for their sins, without claiming justice.
Such is Rockwell’s character. The institutions to which he is devout (police force, toxic masculinity, among others) are the very things that destroy him throughout the film. And as he moves further away, he tries to be a better person. To do something good.
But this does not redeem Rockwell. The film never attempts to absolve him of the murder he committed. He is damned, and the ending seems to imply that he has accepted that fate.
This does not mean Rockwell’s storyline is not deserving of critique, however. The primarily problem: the victims of his grotesque crime are completely absent.
There are three black characters in the film. All of them are unimportant. Rockwell interacts with one. Yet his crime never comes up. In a story that heavily focuses on police brutality, it’s most common victims are essentially absent. That, is a problem.
“THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is a darkly comic drama from Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES). After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Academy Award winner Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.” – Rotten Tomatoes