If I could, I would rent three billboards and they would read:
Billboard One: This movie is frustrating
Billboard Two: Because its story is badly flawed
Billboard Three: But the performances are great
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri goes rogue after the first act/first third of the movie.The screenplay evidently attracted some spectacular actors led by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, and my guess is that the script by Martin McDonagh -- who is a terrific playwright -- was much different than what eventually made it to the screen. That's the only way I can imagine that such great actors would sign on to this Indie film. In my fantasy, the film as originally intended didn't test well and sat on a shelf until it was radically re-cut and then released. [NOTE: I have no idea whether this happened, it is my fantasy.]
The plot, such as it is, revolves around McDormand seeking justice for her daughter who was raped and murdered. The perp was never caught and so she announces to the world the incompetence of the local Sheriff (a meaty Woody Harrelson) by renting three billboards outside her home.
But the movie isn't about solving the crime. It's about how to get McDormand to take down those billboards. And it also seems to be about the corruption of the local law enforcement and the stoic way in which McDormand copes with her family strife which (along with dealing with her daughter's murder), includes raising a son -- the always good Lucas Hedges -- and dealing with an ex-husband (John Hawkes) who likes to beat her up and is now shacking up with a ridiculously dumb 19-year old.
It's also about a strange, sadistic and dim-witted policeman (Sam Rockwell) who lives with his racist chain-smoking mother and has a penchant for menace and cruelty.
The film becomes unmoored fairly early on and then just seems to drift aimlessly and arbitrarily with no interest in any kind of credible reality. And yet the film is not a fantastical comedy a la the Coen brothers where these flights from real life can be a thrilling and funny ride. No, this film's style is more prosaic and serious than that. It just rumbles along not caring whether any of it actually makes any sense.
Some of the things that happen include: someone sets fire to the billboards - a scene in which McDormand apparently keeps a small fire extinguisher in her station wagon and tries to put out the fires with it. The billboards are massive and at least 50 yards apart and she comically runs like a cartoon character from one to the other. Problem is it's not intended to be funny. Harrelson has cancer and commits suicide after an afternoon fucking his wife (Abbie Cornish). Cornish's accent switches between American and Welsh. She and Harrelson are a total mismatch, he looks like he could be her father or her creepy uncle. Before he goes off to eat his gun she says to him: "I love your really big cock."
Rockwell -- upset that his boss committed suicide -- feels compelled to beat the living shit out of the kid who rented the billboards to McDormand and then throw him out the 2nd story window onto the street. This happens in full view of the new black sheriff (Clarke Peters) who just watches. He doesn't move a muscle to help the kid writhing in the street or to arrest or in any other way discipline Rockwell. He just fires him and sends him on his way. McDormand, having somehow acquired molotov cocktails, throws them at the closed police precinct turning the street into a blazing inferno. The police station was closed, but Rockwell let himself in to return his keys and gets badly burned in the fire. Let me repeat that -- the police station was closed for the night. This incident results in no police investigation and no arrests. Life seemingly goes on undisturbed despite smoking remnants of the charred former police station.
Two things we learn from these incidents (among others) is that there are no attorneys in Ebbing, not a single one (LAWYERS ALERT -- go to Ebbing, there's a lot of business for you there and no competition) and the police station isn't open 24 hours, it closes at night (CRIMINAL ALERT -- go to Ebbing where there's a lot of late night crime opportunity and no chance of being caught).
What saves the movie, at least somewhat, is the brilliant performances of the cast, especially McDormand and Rockwell. Frances McDormand's eyes are so expressive, her face so beautifully worn, that she imbues her grieving, stoic and at times violent character with courage and humor. She is especially winning when the corners of her mouth crinkle into an ironic, world-weary smile. Sam Rockwell steals the movie. From his mutton head to his drunken gait to the deep menace in his otherwise dull eyes, he is a man-child ill-equipped to control the violence within him. And yet he also has moments of dumb compassion and innocent grace.
I kept thinking of Wind River, Taylor Sheridan's taut thriller, and Manchester-By-The-Sea, Kenneth Lonergan's brilliant portrayal of family tragedy. These three films share similar themes and even similar protagonists. But whereas Sheridan and Lonergan understand how to create a credible world of sorrow and feeling (as Lonergan does in the equally brilliant You Can Count On Me), McDonagh (or at least this version of McDonagh) needs to find his way back to story-telling 101.