Signing Off
By Michael Koresky

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Dir. Martin McDonagh, U.S., Fox Searchlight

Though it begins with a rendition of the lilting 1805 Irish ballad “The Last Rose of Summer” on the soundtrack, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is served up as stick-to-your-ribs American fare. Once the song’s last strains fade away and the billboards of the title have emerged out of the mist (there they are!), the film errs on the side of cartoonish rather than meditative. Set in a nondescript Midwestern town, the geography and boundaries of which are difficult to trace or discern, Three Billboards finds renowned British-Irish playwright and sometime filmmaker McDonagh back in the self-consciously loquacious territory of his earlier In Bruges (2011), adapting his penchant for bad-boy shock humor to a stateside vernacular, this time nominally setting his sights on male violence against women and the entrenched social structures that allow those men to go unpunished. McDonagh’s approach, however, is unlikely to make viewers contemplate violence or power, however, as Three Billboards is the kind of momentary crowd-pleasing entertainment that will satiate audiences looking for the movie equivalent of a knee to the crotch—which not so incidentally is one of its defining images.

McDonagh is here so aggressive in eliciting satisfied hoots and hollers from his audience that his film fumbles even on the level of wish fulfillment. Released in a climate where it’s sure to be embraced as “prescient” or “of the moment” (a response that paradoxically undermines the reality that the issues the film pokes at have never not been relevant), Three Billboards is unlikely to be talked about much after awards season mania has died down. What may last is the central image of jaw-clenched Frances McDormand, in full take-no-prisoners mode as Mildred, who’s on a kamikaze mission against Ebbing’s law enforcement for neglecting the unsolved case of her teenage daughter’s rape and murder, despite their insistence that there’s no DNA match to any known criminals. Instigating the main action of the film, Mildred buys three large signs from the local ad agency, which is directly across the street from the police station (it’s the film’s only clear spatial geography). The billboards are on the side of the main but desolate Drink Water Road, making it all but impossible for anyone heading into town to miss the messaging. It seems that there hasn’t been a new advertisement placed there since a 1986 campaign for Huggies, so any signs of life would be readily noticed by passing locals. We first see what Mildred is pitching along with Sam Rockwell’s doofy police deputy Dixon, reading it in obscuring reverse order as he backs his car down the road: “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” reads the last. Then: “AND STILL NO ARRESTS.” And finally but first: “RAPED WHILE DYING.”

That Mildred won’t shut up about the case provokes the ire of not only the racist, pudding-headed Dixon but also nearly the entire town. The beloved Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is in the midst of losing a battle to cancer, and Mildred’s refusal to let sleeping dogs lie is viewed as an impolite insurgence against a man in his final months. But Mildred cares not for niceties, which the film is eager to remind us of in her nearly every scene. Divorced from the abusive Charlie (John Hawkes), Mildred is a survivor, a single mom whose high school–age son, the mild-mannered Robbie (Lucas Hedges), wants nothing more than to play peacekeeper. Her first act onscreen is kindly turning over a beetle that had been caught on its back, but Mildred has less patience for those of the human species. “Why don’t you finish up your tea, Father, and get the fuck out of my kitchen,” she calmly snaps at a local priest Robbie has brought to the house for a chat. Later, in addition to the aforementioned crotch-targeting—a pleasure she visits upon both a teen boy and his female friend after they throw cans at her car—Mildred tosses a few Molotov cocktails at the police station, and in a particularly goofy scene, turns a tooth drill back on an extremely unprofessional dentist. Each of these moments comes with built-in beats for audience applause.

All of this could of course easily fall under the category of “pitch-black humor”—and certainly the film’s tone and laborious title evoke nothing so much as the strain of mid-to-late-nineties, post–Pulp Fiction crime dramas of forced eccentricity (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, Clay Pigeons, none of which are good). But painting with such broad strokes does McDonagh no favors as either a dramatist or humorist. McDonagh has proven time and again his taste for tee-hee, finger-to-the-mouth naughtiness, so this film’s litany of politically incorrect humor (words bandied about include “faggot,” “nigger,” “cunt,” “fat little Mexican boys,” and McDonagh’s favorite, if In Bruges is any indication, “midget”) comes across as an all-purpose mannerism of the filmmaker rather than a choice specific to this script and milieu. And McDonagh’s blasé, shoehorned gestures toward commentary on American racism—relegated to vague references to the local police having tortured an unseen black man under arrest—are undermined by the brevity of the onscreen roles given to African-Americans, including Mildred’s friend Denise (Amanda Warren), who barely has dialogue in a story that uses her as a narrative pawn (Dixon jails her without bail for marijuana possession as a revenge tactic against Mildred), and a too-late appearance by the always welcome Clarke Peters as an out-of-town, state-appointed sheriff who arrives to take care of business, a much needed calm at the center of an increasingly violent storm.

To seriously critique Three Billboards for its portrayal of vigilante justice is perhaps to take it too seriously. Despite moments of forced pathos, it’s a self-aware cartoon, a whiz-bang contraption in love with itself, interested in small-town America only in so much as it’s recalling other movies about small-town America. The horror of the film’s backstory all but begs for catharsis, but McDonagh’s need to give it to the audience at such regular intervals has a numbing effect. Especially strange is that the film’s one forthright cinematic flourish—a midfilm long-take tracking shot of Dixon journeying from his desk to the ad agency across the street to exact bloody, law-breaking vengeance on the ad salesman who sold the signs to Mildred—is tied to the perspective of the film’s idiot antagonist, an odd choice that creates little more than formal dissonance for the viewer. Dixon’s repugnant behavior and Rockwell’s loogie-hocking cornpone style are so extreme that the character’s late film moral awakening is less than persuasive. That his moment of epiphany is accompanied by a reprise of “The Last Rose of Summer” doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.