'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' film review: McDormand shines in this decidedly angry ride

'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' film review: McDormand shines in this decidedly angry ride

It is strange to laud a film's strong performances, sharp screenplay and confident direction - and still not love the film as a whole. That is the case with the angry, fist-shaking dark comedy-drama "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (opening in additional cities Nov. 17).

In short: Grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), frustrated by her daughter’s unsolved murder, has three billboards erected that directly question the competence of the small town police chief (Woody Harrelson). Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones and Peter Dinklage also star.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh's ("In Bruges," "Seven Psychopaths") latest film is an emotionally conflicted and mean-spirited work that is the best Coen brothers movie that they neither wrote nor directed. While a brutal murder of Mildred's daughter is the underlying reason she publicly lambastes the police chief, solving her murder is not this film's goal. This story is about the resolute wrecking ball Mildred aims at the police and how her simple defiance reeks havoc on the small town. A desperate, frustrated and impotent citizen directly challenges the authority and capability of the police chief - and in doing she, Mildred also pushes them into an equally desperate and frustrated corner.

McDonagh deserves create for create a complex story where the seemingly justified Mildred is allowed to be stubborn to a fault and even the crass and incompetent police officers are allowed room for character development. "Three Billboards" is unbound to traditional plot turns - it moves with its own cadence and direction, allowing its characters to dynamically interact and push one another further and further into desperation.

That said, "Three Billboards" is not a truly liberated film -- if anything, it's slavish to its own angry tone. The film willfully chooses to take the most spiteful route whenever possible. Anyone wondering "what is going to happen next" need only to consider what the most angry character choice in that moment would be -- this ends up being a pretty reliable predictor of what's to come. This takes the fun out of watching the characters cut each other down in even the most entertaining scenes ... mostly because it gets so repetitive. This is a shame because McDonagh's script is packed with sharpened, honed cutting barbs.

McDormand takes full command of her performance in way audiences haven't seen since "Fargo." She embodies a searing righteous sense of justice - yet, her character still must grapple with deep regret and the escalating consequences of her decision to erect the billboards. Rockwell seems to be playing a somewhat shallow, dim-witted and incompetent officer - but all that pays off big in the third act, when his character finally gets a chance to shine. Aside from Harrelson's surprisingly crude but affecting police chief, most of the supporting cast doesn't get a lot to do. The tragedy here is the supporting cast includes actors nominated for Oscars (Hedges, Hawkes) and a two-time Emmy winner (Dinklage). These actors are simply wasted in roles that do little more than nudge the plot forward a bit.

Individual aspects - the acting, the dialogue, the directing - of "Three Billboards" are above reproach, but the same cannot be said of the total end product. If "Three Billboards" is a battle of wills between two parties equally "in the right" and incited by act of outrage, then it's still tough to say exactly what this film is other than an exercise in rage-filled characters taking out their impotence on each other. And don't look for any solid fulfillment with the film's resolution - the ending is open ended at best, and troubling at worst. The indecisive ending lacks the confidence the rest of the movie is based in. Furthermore, it's arguable that Mildred - the protagonist - has a character arc that is a lateral move at best, while other supporting characters get more satisfying arcs. 

Final verdict: McDormand and Rockwell shine in an otherwise muddled and bleak comedy. "Three Billboards" is packed with entertaining scenes of characters directly engaging each other - but strung together, the individual scenes form a meandering story that picks up some b-plots then drops them unceremoniously and fails to give its protagonist a satisfying journey. 

Score: 3/5

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is now playing in select cities. This dark comedy has a running time of 115 minutes and is R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.

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