The 2017 Oscar race is in it’s home stretch, meaning a January full of new, critically acclaimed films. My favorite part of this movie-going season is how I’m consistently surprised by what graces my local silver screen. In June of 2014, I hadn’t even heard of films like Nightcrawler, Whiplash, or Selma. Now, they rank among my favorite of that year, Whiplash being among my favorites of all time. This year is no different, as I again find myself giddy with anticipation about all the films garnering nominations and praises galore. One of the films dominating much of the awards conversation is the awkwardly, yet aptly titled, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I walked into Three Billboards expecting one of the best films of 2017, and I left severely disappointed.
It’s not undeserving of any praise, as this film boasts an incredible cast of career best performances, most of all in Frances McDormand. She’s been in bit roles and side characters for the last few years, but the way she inhabits this role is incredible. Her character is crass, rude, unapologetic, and could care less about what you or I think. Even with her rough exterior, there are moments when the emotional, broken woman she is beneath it all gets to shine through. It’s not that she’s emotionless, it’s that she’s so damaged that a snide defense mechanism has taken shape. This isn’t just the performance of the year, it’s the performance of her lifetime.
Delivering another incredible performance is Sam Rockwell, that guy you’ve seen in that one movie. Rockwell’s biggest claim’s to fame are the forgettable Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2, and his incredible turn in Duncan Jones’ Moon. Rockwell, like his costar, has been unfairly relegated to character roles, never really being able to take center stage himself. That isn’t the case with Three Billboards, as he’s given the screen time not only to take a leading role, but demonstrate why he deserves a shot at one. Rockwell’s character is not a likable one, and I spent most of the movie despising him, but it takes a skilled actor to make me detest his character whilst falling in love with his performance. I don’t love how the script handled his character (more on that later), but it didn’t take away from the spectacular performance on display
Honestly, I can’t think of a single performance that was anything less than great. There are tons of minor characters in this film, and every actor cast is able to populate this fictional town of Ebbing, MO with a delightful performance. Peter Dinklage, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, John Hawks, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Samara Weaving, truly everyone in this film shines. It’s interesting to see a film full of scene stealers, as there are often two or three on screen at any given moment. The acting in Three Billboards really cannot be oversold.
Which makes it such a shame that the actors are given terrible dialogue to work with, as this is quite possibly one of the worst written films of the year. Every line of dialogue sounds like it was written by a 14 year old who just recently hit the swearing phase of their angsty rebellion. It’s not that I have a problem with swear words in film (I freaking love The Departed), what bothers me is when the writer is so clearly trying to shove as many swear words as possible into a sentence for maximum shock value. The phrase “dinner’s ready,” in Three Billboards roughly translates to “Get your goddamn ass off the fucking couch and come get this fucking dinner I fucking made for you, you ungrateful fucking piece of fucking shit.” After the first ten minutes, it just became crass and pointless.
McDonagh is clearly going for a Coen Bros. vibe, with his peculiar, salt of the earth characters and a twisty turvy story. Yet, his script lacks any of the emotion or subtlety that the Coen’s have been able to master. McDonagh has taken the most surface elements of far superior films, and left the depth and quality behind. Sam Rockwell’s character in particular is ripe with the potential of a great character arc, but the film never does enough to show you who he is or who he becomes, you simply have to guess and assume that he’s growing and changing. Rather than eliciting the same emotional and engaging response I get while watching a Coen Bros. film, it just made me want to go watch O Brother, Where Art Thou.
While the film shoots for a “slice of life” style story, full of quirky characters and dozens of running plot threads, we’re instead left with a hollow setting and characters left unfleshed out. There’s a ton of merit in having characters surrounded in mystery. Think of Jon Bernthal in Baby Driver, we never learn his name, we see him for only a few scenes, and we never hear from him again. The key difference, is that Bernthal’s role in Baby Driver was purely to help us understand Baby. In Three Billboards, there are massive plot points completely dependent on characters we know hardly anything about. A “Deus Ex Machina” is defined as a situation being unexpectedly resolved in a way that hasn’t been set up, and it runs rampant throughout this film.
It’s a testament to the level of acting, that the performers can take such a horrible script, and still make something captivating and engaging. Writer/Director Martin McDonagh does a expert job drawing out the best of his cast, but gave them a serious obstacle in the form of his downright terrible script. There are some career defining performances, but you’re better off skipping the film entirely and watching the highlight reel at the Oscars.
Rating: 2.5 — Meh…