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THREE BILLBOARDS Starts Strong But Loses Its Way

Now
playing at an indie art house near me:

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
(Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017)

Such
a juicy premise: a hard as nails Missouri woman rents three billboards alongside
a country road to shame her town’s sheriff who has made no arrests in the wake
of her daughter’s rape and murder.

And such a great cast: Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the mother whose grief has solidified into anger over this injustice, Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby, who doesn’t take kindly to billboards that read “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?,” Samuel Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon, who has a reputation of torturing black suspects; John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage as a local car salesman who has a crush on Mildred.

Add
to that the lush mountain scenery surrounding these characters which has
locations shot in my home state of North Carolina standing in for the fictional town
of Ebbing, Missouri, and you’ve got the elements to make up a tensely funny
thriller, but roughly half way through its nearly two hour running time, the
movie runs out of steam and doesn’t know where to go.

This
happens right after the exit of one major player and the entrance of a suspect
that initially appears to serve as misdirection, but ends up being the
direction the film mistakenly decides to go with.

McDormand’s dour divorcée
Mildred owns the movie’s best moments, but, like with everyone she interacts
with, she never lets us get close to what she’s dealing with enough to really
be on her side. Harrelson’s Willoughby draws more empathy as he’s dying of
cancer and seems to have a good sincere head on his shoulders, but his
character’s fate does the film no favors.


When the film shifts to the underwritten perspective of Rockwell’s Officer Dixon, who we never learn whether he is guilty of racist activity or not, the narrative gets muddled, and a restlessness sets in.
Also, the presence
of McDormand and composer Carter Burwell (who provides a solid yet instinctive score here) made me wish for the more purposeful
(and wittier) approach of the actress and musical director
s long-time collaborators, the Coen brothers.

Writer/Director
McDonagh has had better luck with this sort of black comedy in his previous
films, IN BRUGE and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, which also features Rockwell and Abbie
Cornish who appears here as Harrelson’s wife. Here his screenplay strands its
protagonists and possible antagonists in a pointless parable.

It’s not that every
movie has to have a pat pay-off – many great films end ambiguously – but this particular story
of these broken people who fight for justice that they likely will never get deserves
a better thematic resolution than we get here.


More later…