three billboards outside ebbing, missouri (2017)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a bizarre sitcom with all the trappings of a dramatic tragedy. A cinema of the absurd takes over the screen as the overly-constructed production collapses in on itself, each development more banal than the last, each new sequence more emotionally empty than the already vacuous film that preceded it. It is heartfelt drama by way of a matrix of audience feedback data, an infuriating two hours of nonsensical stabs in the air that take aim at anything the perceived viewer may enjoy seeing roasted about their society. Designed from the first frame to appeal to its target, the approach is the epitome of shallow filmmaking as a slew of top performers enter the screen seemingly far too self-conscious of the circumstances, never so much playing characters as emoting in a way that appears to satisfy sacred industry guidelines of quality. Not a genuine word was spoken, not an honest tear was shed and when all is said and done, we have witnessed nothing short of a facsimile of a film. Writer/director Martin Mcdonagh presents us with a collage of tired prejudice, a blender filled with hate and vengeance, a world where human beings torment one another in the same way they breathe air. Psychological drama this is not, as Mcdonagh never examines or even ventures a guess as to the 'why' of this behavior, little stock is put in questioning the assumption that good humored Joe six-pack stock characters amidst a pack of predatory tormentors is not only true to life and business as usual, but is so salt of the Earth that it becomes fodder for comedy.
The film can barely get its premise off the ground from the start as we're expected to believe that the rape and murder of a teenage girl can conveniently segue into knee-slapping yucks and back to poignant human observation at the whim of the storyteller. The scenarios go through several transformations from jabs at political correctness to tugs at our heartstrings, to outright comedy, to terse melodrama, the list goes on and on. What it never throws into the mix is a moment of genuine thought or emotion, rather a series of cheeky attempts at dark humor and observations about human behavior are substituted in lieu of any true experience or feeling. Our performers attempt to inhabit the empty shells of characters and bring some sense of humanity to the putrid script, but any attempt is completely in vain as the relentlessly pointless plot drags us from one would-be effective moment to the next. Add this to the list of contemporary directors who clearly have a disdain for Americans and American culture, yet adore and emulate the films of American directors. Mcdonagh's oversimplification of any of the issues he's dealing with point to a gross misunderstanding and mishandling of the topics he wishes to lambaste. Yet, through it all, we cannot help but see a filmmaker idealizing the films of the Coen Brothers and their ilk, doing his best to lift tropes and pondering what makes the films of auteurs work. The film delights in showcasing characters whose behavior is deviant in an overly-politicized society where everyone's behavior must conform to good PR, yet the least savvy amongst them seems to be able to roam free on the inside of the law and terrorize the populace of the small town while being quizzically portrayed as villains. Three Billboards may be the best representation of our times because it is so busy going after flash in the pan whipping posts of popular culture to please its salivating target audience that it forgets that anyone beside the target may also be peering in. So sure of itself that you will love its flavor-of-the-month faux anti-establishment nonsense, the film never renders itself relatable beyond any of its schtick.
When the curtain finally falls, we are left with a conclusion that speaks to nothing but itself. Out two remaining central characters have gone out in search of a mysterious person to murder him without really knowing why, just a vague suspicion. McDonagh is certainly aware that one of them is the same sociopathic villain he's been demonizing for the film's entire runtime (until the third act when a redemption arc springs from literally nowhere and for no other purpose than to become a redemptive arc) and the other is our lead character, searching desperately for justice. The film never bothers to attempt any dramatic tension nor does it bother to impart any thematic resolution or understanding over top of the incoherent narrative leading up to it. Instead we are left with this moment. Two unlikely allies have hitched a ride together toward a battle for justice, and after nearly two hours of being beaten over the head with the notion that justice is what the powerful people say it is, it all comes off as cheap. Three Billboards is the most socially unconscious socially conscious film you're likely to see. No amount of political sentimentalizing can pull it from its own abyss. The film is not only a waste of time, it's a waste of great performances.