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Film Review: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Is Outrageous and Funny, but Then Just Outrageous

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 22nd, 2017

Film poster: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2017) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Playwright/film director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) is a longtime master of the comedy of the macabre. His films mix tones like a professional juggler alternating balls and chainsaws, laughter coming right on the heels of murder. His movies are like murky, though pleasantly disturbing, stews that goes down with a sharp bite. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri he once again does not disappoint … at least initially. I loved the first half of this movie, without reservation. The peerless Frances McDormand (Burn After Reading) plays Mildred, a woman consumed with grief over the recent grisly rape/murder of her daughter, which remains unsolved. Angry at the lack of progress in the investigation, she puts up taunting reminders of police inaction on three billboards just outside of town.

This gesture proves inflammatory and soon all hell breaks loose, both metaphorically and literally, with actual conflagrations consuming the town. Woody Harrelson (The Edge of Seventeen) plays the hapless local sheriff, and Sam Rockwell (Better Living Through Chemistry) his volatile deputy, with many more accomplished actors – including Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird), Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones), John Hawkes (The Sessions) and Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon on HBO’s The Wire) – rounding out the impressive cast. It is a lot of fun, while it lasts.

Frances McDormand as “Mildred Hayes” in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Unfortunately, about halfway through, the balance of humor and violence shifts, for me, too far in favor of the latter, and begins to repel. That is most likely McDonagh’s intention, but it makes for less pleasant viewing, borderline distasteful. In addition, the problem with witty screenwriters like McDonagh (Aaron Sorkin, as well), is that they often craft lines that are too clever by half: perfectly constructed bon mots that in no way should emerge from the mouths of the characters, as earlier defined. Yes, the language sounds great, but kicks the viewer (this viewer, anyway) out of the story when other parts break down, as they do here. Mixed tones can, and do, work (see above), but a mixed bag is a problem.

[The review, above, is adapted from a capsule review written for my recap of the recent Middleburg Film Festival.]

Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson in the film THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. Photo by Merrick Morton. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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