Hate can lead a person to act irrationally and do terrible things. Understanding, however, can change even the hardest heart.
That’s the message at the center of the new film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Given the state of the world, it’s a timely film. Unfortunately, it suffers from an acute identity crisis.
You might notice I didn’t say what kind of film “Three Billboards” is. That’s because I’m not sure. But that’s OK. Filmmaker Martin McDonagh, who wrote, produced and directed the movie, didn’t know, either.
There are moments when it seems McDonagh wanted to make a deeply affecting drama. Then he undercuts the somberness with goofball humor.
The very concept behind the film suggests an emotionally wrenching experience. As the title indicates, “Three Billboards” is set in small, buried-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Ebbing, Missouri, where a young woman was recently raped and burned alive.
You’d think her murder would have rocked the tiny community, but the police, including the chief, seem oddly unfazed by the horror.
The girl’s mother, Mildred Hayes, is fed up with their apathy, so she rents the titular billboards outside the city, which in sequence read, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
This sets off a powder keg of anger and retaliation in Ebbing, which is patrolled by racists cops who make Barney Fife look like a paragon of competence in law enforcement.
Of particular note is Officer Jason Dixon, a drunk who reads graphic novels on the job and still lives with his mother. Played by Sam Rockwell (“The Green Mile”), the guy knows less about the law than the average citizen and delights in letting his ignorance flow through his unsheathed baton.
There are moments when it seems like McDonagh allows his characters to get away from him and do things no sane person would, like unruly teenagers. This includes not just Dixon but Hayes. One scene contains violence so shocking, I nearly wrote the movie off.
But as I thought about these moments, I realized how on point they are. Just read the headlines on any given day to see what human beings do when their heads become loose on their shoulders.
The stage set, McDonagh then asks if redemption is possible. He answers that question in a way that’s hard to watch but believable and moving.
If that was the essence of “Three Billboards,” it would be one of the best films of the year. But McDonagh shoots himself in the foot again and again with jarring, badly timed silliness.
Take the scene in which Hayes’ ex-husband threatens to strike her in her home. Their son leaps to her rescue by putting a butcher knife to his throat.
The father’s airhead 19-year-old girlfriend then steps in from outside, where she was waiting in the car, and says (I’m paraphrasing for effect), “Gosh golly guys, I have to pee, but if this is a bad time, I can come back later.”
The moment is played for laughs but undercuts the drama. This happens time and again, and the quality of the humor never rises above the average television sitcom.
I think McDonagh wanted to make a serious drama sprinkled with quirky characters and funny bits, a la “Fargo,” but he’s no Joel or Ethan Coen. Instead, his awkward handling of the frequent tonal shifts nearly kills the movie.
Rockwell’s performance saves it. McDonagh gives Dixon an arc meant to allow the hidden parts of him to overcome his destructive traits – and Rockwell handles it beautifully, putting together a wholly despicable bigot who has more good in him than he knows.
Frances McDormand also does excellent work in “Three Billboards,” although her portrayal of Hayes falls short of her iconic performance in “Fargo.” While she capably expresses her character’s grief and fatigue, she’s often saddled with prickly dialogue, and McDonagh perhaps leaned too heavily on her concentrated scowl.
In the end, I liked “Three Billboards” for its focus on redemption and the chances it takes along the way. Rockwell is also a pleasure to watch. But the uneven tone and occasionally clumsy writing make it a close call.