When writing about Armando Iannucci’s black comedy The Death of Stalin I discussed how for me the upsetting content of the film had totally eclipsed the humour. It was, I said, a comedy that had actively stopped me laughing. In trying to demonstrate how this wasn’t just my failure to respond to this type of movie I cited Martin McDonagh’s In Bruge as an example of a darkly comedic film that I had enjoyed. Here we are with McDonagh’s latest feature though and once again I just could get past the black enough to appreciate the comedy. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a clever, well written and magnificently performed movie but it just brought me down to a point where any level of proper joviality was never going to happen. The film is just soul destroying and watching it hurts. I felt as though a hand had tightened around my heart within the first ten minutes and the grip did not subsequently let up. This in itself is not a problem, there have been plenty of sad films that I have found beautifully cathartic; Dancer in the Dark, The Florida Project, Pan’s Labyrinth, but if you don’t respond to the humour in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri then it offers very little release and it has absolutely no closure.
The plot revolves around a mother, played brilliantly by Francis McDormand, whose teenage daughter has been brutally murdered and in an effort to taunt the police into finding the killer she posts angry messages about it onto the trio of titular advertising hoardings. I don’t want to go into any detail but this is far from the only tragedy in the story and as each element is layered on top it becomes increasingly hard to watch. If you are a parent or if you are married or if you have ever lost someone, suddenly or otherwise, this could effect you deeply. I’m making it sound as though I spent the whole film drowning in my own tears but this isn’t the case, I didn’t even well up which I have certainly been known to do. It doesn’t have those kind of high emotional peaks, it just isn’t any fun.
Ultimately your reaction to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will depend on your sensitivities and what you can handle comedically. I had no problem with In Bruge because the darkness comes from the character’s brutality and violence. This was extreme and outside of most people’s field of experience so the distance allowed for shocked laughter. The more universal themes explored here are just a little too close to home, or at least they are manifestations of genuine fears that many of us will have. I’m not concerned that I or anyone I love will get bumped off by a hitman but I am scared my kids could get hurt or worse and there’s nothing to enjoy in that.
Most of humour in the film relates to the protagonist’s creative swearing and refusal to take any crap from anyone and no doubt with a less oppressive tone I could have happily found this amusing. Even then though this is brought of the character’s pain and (understandably) selfish anger so is heavily tinged with sadness no matter the approach. There are some moments surrounding the naive innocence of a couple of young females which did make me crack a small smile but even these scenes feel better suited to a different type of movie and I’m not entirely sure if there isn’t a little bit of gender stereotyping going on here. The only genuinely funny or sweet thing in the film relates to some letters one of the main supporting players writes to a few of the others but I really can’t say any more about this for fear of spoilers. One woman in my screening found some jokes made at the expense of someone’s disability very funny indeed (it works in context) and it may be because I was on a general downer but I’m not sure that said good things about her.
In an attempt to review this film rather than just react to it I will say that the characterisation is really strong, particularly with Sam Rockwell’s bigoted cop, and the acting is excellent across the board. McDormand is superb, as is Rockwell and Woody Harrelson as the Chief of Police named and shamed by the billboards. Some of the people’s motivations and actions feel a little unrealistic and there are some big contrivances but the script is strong even if the story is less so. Even this potential flaw is rationalised if you view the film as someone’s revenge fantasy where they can react to their situation as their rage makes them want to do, without consequences. There is a legitimate reading where the whole thing is a dream. Either way I won’t criticise the film as there is real artistry here but on a strictly personal level it was all just too hard.
Is this one for the kids?
Certainly not and even a few adults may find some scenes disturbing. There is some violence in the movie, in all cases senseless and at one early point in a dentist’s office a little nonsensical.
The Ripley Factor:
This is a woman’s story and I think McDonagh has managed this with authenticity. There are a few things McDormand’s Mildred does that feel more typical of a male character but this is her way of fighting patriarchal expectations, unconsciously or otherwise, and I can go with this in terms of the representation of women, if not in terms of story. She is no role model though.
Abby Cornish plays Woody Harrelson’s wife despite being twenty years his junior but I am happy to accept this too despite it conforming to some poor Hollywood conventions. She is strong and dignified.