Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the latest film from one of my favorite directors, Martin McDonagh of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths cinematic-fame (though his primary medium is the stage). McDonagh’s films are all violent, black comedies deeply concerned about cosmic justice. His primary ingredients in his cinematic concoctions have been language, religion, and stories—a few of my favorite things—and he typically casts a few of my actors in his films. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri fits the paradigm in every case, but still I find myself resisting it. I’ve been trying to figure out why for almost three weeks now.
I think I’m resisting the setting. McDonagh is Irish, and his first film, the macabre In Bruges sends a pair of Irish gangsters on holiday to a Bosch-ian Belgian town where they look at medieval art and wrestle with guilt. There’s also a shootout. Seven Psychopaths locates its characters in Los Angeles ostinsibly, but really they live on the screen in the world of Hollywood’s making acting out archetypes common to post-Pulp Fiction “cool” gangster cinema. There are shootouts. Both locations feel like places (be they fictional or real) McDonagh knows, and while the characters and their actions are broad, they are at least as broad as their settings. Everything fits.
Now, granted, Ebbing, Missouri, isn’t a real place, but it isn’t a hyper-real place either. There’s no “small town Missouri” that lives in our collective ether, easy to pluck down and contain a story. Three Billboards lacks the remove that makes it easy to accept McDonagh’s caricatures, for me at least. Seven Psychopaths’ too-cool gangsters don’t have real-world antecedents, so do with them what you will, and the same goes for In Bruges’ gargoyles, but I know Missourians, and they are all much more complicated than anyone in this film, and none of them would ever talk or act like these characters. So I have a difficult time believing any moment in this movie. Three Billboards is well-acted, consistently funny, thematically evocative, and it pops with just enough striking imagery, but because I don’t buy the world of the film—its physics, if you will—I can’t buy the connective cause-and-effect.
Lighten up, Elijah, I find myself saying to myself. Just accept the conceit and go along for the ride. Maybe I should, and if you can, good for you. America just feels rather divided right now, fraught with powers that seem intent on tearing us apart, and I’m loath to go along with a movie that wants me to laugh at people in any part of the country, but especially people in a part of the country who feel like the world is always laughing at them, like they’re being judged from both coasts while having their community torn apart by outside interests. A few of McDonagh’s jabs in Three Billboards feel ill-timed and inconsiderate. What’s the point, you know, of kicking someone who’s down for being down and not knowing what to do about it? I admire Martin McDonagh (and his brother), and I hate to negatively criticize his film, but this is 2017, and I’m just feeling a little tender about this kind of thing. We have to bear with each other if we’re ever going to find the kind of justice and reconciliation McDonagh clearly wants us to find.