The people responsible for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri made some great choices, but they did not make a great film. The plot centers around the aftermath of a rape and murder of a young woman in Ebbing, whose mother, Mildred, (Frances McDormand) puts up billboards calling out Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to make some headway in the case. Chief Willoughby says he doesn’t have much to go on, and it’s no wonder: his right-hand man is a dipshit racist (Jason Dixon played mostly brilliantly by Sam Rockwell), and the rest of the gang is a bunch of brazenly white guys that don’t seem to be doing too much in the way of police work. On top of that, Willoughby has his own problems. Indeed, everyone in this movie is damaged goods in one way or another, and the film does a really good job of conveying the complicated emotions for all involved.
Despite these emotions, the story is told with this sort of a screwball comedy vibe, and this tension in the production never gets resolved. On the way out of the theater, L wondered aloud how he didn’t like the movie even though it was a good movie. I think the answer is that the film makers didn’t want to go completely Altman and let it be built on character pieces, and they didn’t have the stomach to cut the good material they were working with in order to tighten it up to make it a great drama. The former is tough to do (and probably tough to sell in Hollywood), and the latter would have required cutting out some great acting and dialog. So what we are left with is something that is sort of a mush of some of the best and the worst of the likes of Twin Peaks, Fargo and Mystic River. This will go down as a movie where people remember some great scenes and amusing dialog, but will scratch their heads at some of the plot holes and other peculiarities.
The positives include the cast and characters, and the casting is brilliant top to bottom: Red (Caleb Landry Jones) is the semi-principled ad exec, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is Mildred’s son who has to deal with the blowback from his mother’s antics, and Charlie (John Hawkes) is Mildred’s ex-husband, a wife beater now living with the unreasonably good looking “19-year old” Penelope (Samara Weaving). On the negative side, Penelope is caricatured as a ditz, though she works as an animal trainer and reads about horses in her spare time. Even more unfortunately, although the movie takes some stabs at race issues, the several African American characters are not developed at all. Even Chief Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), who is eventually sent in (by whom?) to replace Willoughby, is just a place holder, not a character. There is possibly a metaphor I am missing here.
Another positive is that there are some lucid scenes, including a a “date” between Mildred and the alcoholic used car salesman and midget, Peter Dinklage. The meal takes place for what passes for an upscale restaurant in Ebbing, and the ex-husband arrives with his young girlfriend about midway through. This allows Dinklage to rattle off a brief monologue that lays bare life’s prospects for the likes of these folks, and there is probably a thesis of the movie in there somewhere. We all play the hand we were dealt. Other scenes, particularly the one where Mildred dresses down the Catholic priest, aim high and miss the mark.
Finally, at the risk of introducing spoilers, during the end of the film I was reminded of one of the great and mysterious lines of the 1993 movie, Tombstone, where the Val Kilmer Doc Holliday character says of Wyatt Earp:
“Oh, make no mistake, it’s not revenge he’s after; it’s a reckoning.”
A reckoning is a resolution and an ending, but that is not really what these characters are after. And even if it were, a reckoning isn’t attainable, is it? Finding the girl’s killer might offer some clarity along some margin, but it doesn’t change much of anything else. So there will be no revenge, no resolution, no reckoning, and ultimately no justice. That’s just the way it goes in Ebbing, Missouri.
So this makes its way over the $6 bar for some compelling characters and some good scenes. But, too many question marks and not enough Woody limit its upside. So despite the gaudy critical acclaim elsewhere, this one won’t be filling space in the Best of L&D for 2017, which is coming sooner than you probably think!