Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS Starts Strong But Loses Its Way

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

(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 divorcĂ©e 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 directors 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...

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