Frances McDormand is too spartan and sealed off in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

The most interesting character in the movie is Sheriff Bill Willoughby, and that’s largely because actor Woody Harrelson is so moving in the part.

Courtesy of Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox Film
Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand star in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.'

Frances McDormand has said that the actor on which she modeled her performance in writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is John Wayne. There’s no reason to disbelieve her. She has often been cast as hardened women but, as Mildred Hayes, she’s positively flinty.

Mildred is the mother of a teenage girl in Ebbing, Mo., who was raped and murdered seven months before the movie begins. The crime remains unsolved, and Mildred resorts to desperate measures, believing the local police, including its beloved sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), are incompetent. On three abandoned billboards on a country road she plasters three messages: “Still No Arrests?,” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?,” and “Raped While Dying.”

What we soon come to realize is that Willoughby is a good man gnawed by his failure to catch the killer. He also has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, which the whole town, including Mildred, seems to know about. She doesn’t care. About the billboards, she says to him, “They won’t be as effective after you croak.”    

McDonagh (whose previous films are “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths”) likes to people his movies with oddballs and then ping them against each other to see how they react. He has a gift for colorful characterizations, but too often in “Three Billboards,” as was also true of his other movies, the collisions between people exist only to set off sparks. Scene by scene, the movie is compelling, but the scenes don’t fit together especially well. He may not care. Like Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea”) but less eloquent, he’s a grab bag kind of guy: comedy, drama, slapstick, horror – it’s all part of the same stew. Normally I enjoy this sort of mélange, which is actually closer to the tonal range of our lives. But in “Three Billboards,” McDonagh opportunistically reaches for whatever works dramatically in the moment. 

Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) best illustrates this syndrome. He is portrayed as a goofball screw-up who at the same time carries a vicious racist streak. We are clued in that he will eventually seek redemption. The deepest and scariest implications of such a man are skimped on in favor of the kind of nutty frivolity that Rockwell knows all too well how to play.

McDonagh is also too obvious at carpentering his plot points, such as they are. The most blatant example is a flashback in which Mildred’s daughter (Kathryn Newton) rails at her mother for not letting her have the car and then storms out of the house saying, “I hope I get raped on the way.” This is also meant to set up Mildred’s guilt, but McDormand is a bit too spartan and sealed off in the role. Her steeliness doesn’t have enough emotional levels.

I realize we’re supposed to recognize Mildred’s hardness, and harshness, as a protective coating to her pain, but the ways in which McDonagh shows us her “vulnerable” side are mostly prosaic, like the scene in which she talks to a stray deer in an open field and imagines for a moment that the deer might be her daughter reincarnated. (The deer looks so much like a CGI creation that McDonagh might just as well have given us Bambi.) Her strongest scene is an obvious crowd-pleaser, perhaps too obvious. Visited at home by the local priest (Nick Searcy), who wants her to tamp down her wild ways, she excoriates, as if she were delivering a foul-mouthed aria, his holier-than-thou hypocrisy.

The most interesting character in the movie for me is not Mildred, with her desire for retribution, but Willoughby, and that’s largely because Harrelson is so moving in the part. He has been for some time now one of the best and most versatile modern actors (he’s the only good thing in “LBJ”). In “Three Billboards,” he can be as folksy as Sheriff Andy on the “The Andy Griffith Show,” but there is a deftly underplayed rue about him. 

I would have much preferred a movie centering on Willoughby. Mildred’s mania for vengeance, which is essentially her mania for justice, too often comes across as shtick – “Death Wish” with a folksy, small-town twirl. Grade: B- (Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.)

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