Martin McDonagh made his name as a playwright with a pair of regional trilogies – the Leenane Trilogy and the Aran Islands Trilogy – and in many way his second film set in America feels like an entire trilogy compressed into a single story, or a story that demands two sides stories just to satisfy its narrative flamboyance and insatiable taste for local texture. Even the title suggests that tripartite structure, referring to a trio of billboards that Mildred (Frances McDormand) rents on the outskirts of her home town of Ebbing, in order to confront local police office Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) about why he has failed to produce any convincing leads into the assault and murder of her teenage daughter twelve months before. Despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that the billboards haven’t been updated since 1986, when they were bypassed by the highway, Mildred’s gesture quickly sends out a ripple effect across Ebbing, leading to an enormous array of subplots that play out across an equally enormous ensemble cast that counts Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Kerry Condon, Abbie Cornish, Zelijko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones and John Hawkes among some of its more well-known names. As the ramifications escalate, every character brims with an inchoate rage that spills out into violence, viscera and continuous profanity, along with a plastic, histrionic, operatic and – above all – grotesque vision of the South, and a vision of American abjection that takes the South as the most emblematic part of America.
As that might suggest, Three Billboards burns with narrative ambition, and features some truly original and compelling set pieces, with its vast scale and sprawl often seeming to exceed even that of a theatrical trilogy and instead demand the sustained seriality of a television drama. Similarly, it’s clear that building regional texture is one of McDonagh’s signatures, and something he is capable of weaving in and out of his narrative thread in quite a pervasive and atmospheric kind of way. At the same time, however, there was something that I found inextricably inauthentic about Three Billboards in comparison, say, to McDonagh’s Irish work, with the sadistic and nihilistic tone of the film as whole often making it feel as if the director doesn’t know – or doesn’t care to know – about the world he is supposedly dissecting. In particular, the cavalier and carnivalesque approach to American racial politics strikes a pretty sour note, with one tone-deaf joke after another culminating with the humanist redemption of a police officer convicted for torturing black folk because he apparently didn’t know any better. At these moments, and especially around Sam Rockwell’s performance of this policeman, Three Billboards plays like a director using “American issues” as a platform for showcasing his own – supposedly – consummate powers of satire and dark comedy, all the while betraying a total lack of nuance, sensitivity – and plain interest – in the subjects, beliefs and institutions that he’s ostensibly skewering.
In the most old-fashioned way, then, this is a vision of grotesque Americana from across the pond, with even the American actors feeling like they’re foreigners putting on caricatured American accents. Suffused with woody, stagy, theatrical dialogue, there’s a smugness and swagger to every utterance that often feels sub-Coens, sprinkled with contrived profanity and vernacular flourishes that are clearly designed to seem edgy, but just come off as impotent and exhausted. Indeed, you might say that it plays like a film from a director whose only knowledge – or whose preferred knowledge – about America is that of the Coens at their most glib and ironic, except without even the Coens’ ability to draw the very best and nuanced performances out of McDormand. While she can’t be anything other than brilliant, this is hardly one of her best-directed roles, since for all its gung-ho extremity her characterisation in Three Billboards is far less intense or visceral than the introspection of Olive Kitteredge, and the vision that McDormand herself brought to that role and series. For all the narrative ingenuity, part of the problem here is the narrative itself, since Mildred’s demands are so implausible, eventually, that the intensity of all the film’s set pieces collapse in upon themselves, resulting in an ending that tries to be both vigilantistically focused and existentially diffuse, playing more like a blunt stab at elliptical profundity than anything else.
That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t some great moments in Three Billboards. For the most part, however, this is a screenplay that would be more likely to make a great – or good – novel or play, with the barrage of verbiage often playing as an impotent and inchoate attempt to translate the constrictions of theatrical discourse into a more expansive and visceral medium. At the very least, the film’s middlebrow character is of a sort that tends to work better with written or performed language, rather than filmed language, which is presumably why so many of the key moments revolve around monologues and epistolary exchanges, rather than anything resembling fully-fledged cinematic dialogue. In fact, you could almost see it being an epistolary novel – that’s the ideal medium for this story – with the intense writerliness of the language overtaking about everything else. While it’s perhaps not hard, then, to see why the screenplay has been so extolled as a screenplay, that is really all this is – a screenplay that insists upon its own splendid isolation as a screenplay to such an extent that only the most charismatic of actors – only McDormand herself, really – can wrest into anything resembling a film. Call it writerly auteurism, then, or an obsession with the author’s voice that eventually eclipses everything else in the film, even or especially the plethora of picaresque voices that supposedly form its motor engine.