'Three Billboards' Is a Vigilante-Revenge Thriller That Goes Off The Rails

Nov 9, 2017
Originally published on November 10, 2017 6:28 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" starring Frances McDormand as a mother who wants justice for her murdered daughter. It's written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who was a playwright before he moved into film. He made his directorial debut with the 2008 black comedy "In Bruges."

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Let me cut to the chase and say I don't know what to make of Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." It's a blend of tragedy, horror and jokeyness (ph) that at first I found fascinating, then perplexing, then annoying. But early audiences and critics have evidently been spellbound by its foggy melancholy and spasms of violence. The movie won the Audience Favorite prize at this year's Toronto Film Festival. And there's mad awards buzz over the star, Frances McDormand.

She plays Mildred Hayes, a woman who can't understandably let go of the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, which has in less than a year become a cold case. The police and citizens of Ebbing want Mildred to shut up already, which is why, to the town's dismay, she rents those three billboards to remind people of the unspeakable nature of the crime and call out the sheriff by name for his alleged inaction. McDormand is indeed something to behold.

When we meet Mildred, she's already worn down. Every cell in her body seems weary, but she keeps dragging herself forward and making herself a nuisance. What I didn't get though is how the people of a small town could shun a mother for trying to find justice for a crime so hideous. They treat her as if she's mad about her mailbox getting vandalized. Are the police protecting someone, or is this really a matter of time passing and life moving on? In a typical Hollywood revenge movie, they would be protecting someone, but the reality here is more complicated.

The cops are a mix of types. Sam Rockwell plays a deputy named Dixon with a history of brutality and an elderly mother who'd give Norman Bates the heebie-jeebies. He's furious over the public shaming. The sheriff, Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, is a gentler soul. One reason the town is so upset with Mildred is because he has terminal cancer and they don't want him tarnished. Watching him and Mildred, you could almost think that she's the bad guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI")

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Willoughby) I'd do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes. But when the DNA don't match no one who's ever been arrested, and when the DNA don't match any other crime nationwide, and when there wasn't a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well, right now, there ain't too much more we can do.

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) Could pull blood from every man and boy in this town over the age of 8.

HARRELSON: (As Willoughby) Their civil rights laws prevents that, Mrs. Hayes. And what if he was just passing through town?

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) Pull blood from every man in the country then.

HARRELSON: (As Willoughby) And what if he was just passing through the country?

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) If it was me, I'd start up a database - every male baby that's born, stick them on it. And as soon as he done something wrong, cross-reference it. Make a hundred percent certain it was a correct match, then kill him.

HARRELSON: (As Willoughby) Yeah. Well, there's definitely - civil rights laws prevents that. I'm doing everything I can to track him down. I don't think those billboards is very fair.

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) The time it took you to get out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl's probably out there being butchered right now. But I'm glad you've got your priorities straight. I'll say that for you.

EDELSTEIN: You can hear in that scene both the bite and the elegance of Martin McDonagh's writing, as well as his sympathy for both points of view. The characters in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" are entertainingly garrulous and weird, although I doubt McDonagh met many of the inspirations for them in Missouri. His wonderful plays are set in small Irish villages he knew well, plays that, like much of Irish literature and theater, stake out a border between the whimsically mundane and the tragically murderous.

I'd have an easier time imagining these people with their poetic fatalism in Galway, but I tried to believe in McDonagh's Missouri and its people. Woody Harrelson as Willoughby is soulful and ingratiating. Scruffy Caleb Landry Jones has some good scenes as the meek owner of the billboard company who Mildred bullies into submission. Peter Dinklage plays a businessman with the hots for Mildred, who parries his sweetness with acid putdowns. Sam Rockwell's Deputy Dixon is too zig-zaggy (ph) to graph. First, he's menacing, then he takes on the sad helpless affect of Stan Laurel. And then he's on the brink of spontaneous combustion.

But "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" goes off the rails. We get more tragic details of the murder of Mildred's daughter, and at the same time more madcap antics, with Mildred doing something so senseless that the character, McDormand's performance and the whole movie look ridiculous. McDonagh does succeed in subverting the vigilante revenge thriller genre. And good for him, it needs subverting. It's just that he hasn't found anything to replace it with that makes a lick of sense.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORATONE'S "SWAMPED")

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Pete Souza, who was President Obama's chief official White House photographer; Anthony DeCurtis, the author of a new biography of Lou Reed; and Michael Lewis, who's been writing a series of articles about how the Trump administration is changing the federal government on the ground level, check out our podcast. You'll find those and lots of other interviews. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produces and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.