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Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Martin McDonagh’s third feature, much like its predecessor, Seven Psychopaths, is a wildly uneven, profanity laden black comedy-drama with occasional glimpses of greatness. The difference then with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is that given the subject matter, it ends up leaning much more towards the dramatic side of things. Now black comedy like this is a very, very tough thing to get right, and McDonagh was able to nail it with his debut In Bruges, but he’s really struggling here.

The humor is everything I despise about modern comedy. The comedy comes not from actual jokes, rather it comes from the mean spirited shock value bits as well as the non-stop cursing because everyone who does a black comedy feels they have to emulate Tarantino dialogue, something that almost never works. Honestly, I feel like the comedic angle could’ve been done away with entirely and the movie would’ve been better off for it. It’s not funny or clever so all it serves to do is make for lots of bizarre tonal shifts, which I guess are also meant to be funny but aren’t.

Three Billboards also attempts another thing that’s very, very tough to get right, including a political message of sorts. This doesn’t work either. Somehow it manages to be both incredibly blunt and incredibly muddled at the same time. I couldn’t quite figure out what exactly the movie was trying to say. To use another movie from this year as an example, Get Out shares some similar themes which are delivered in an equally unsubtle manner, but there it works perfectly. I think it’s because Get Out is actually focused in its satire, whereas Three Billboards feels very scattershot. It can’t figure out what it’s target is or even what kind of movie it’s trying to be. To put it bluntly like the movie would, the writing didn’t suck in Get Out, but it sucks here.

So what does work here? Well, Frances McDormand is far and away the best part, but really when is she not? I guess Woody Harrelson is a good actor and he does give a fine performance here, but I can’t take him too seriously since there’s no way for me to ever disassociate him from his role on Cheers. The jury is still out on whether Sam Rockwell is good or not here. I couldn’t stand him, but I guess you’re not really meant to.

I’ve been talking badly about Three Billboards this whole time, but I don’t think I dislike it as much as it seems. Well, no, actually I do dislike it, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing it. Last week I saw Ladybird, which I had planned on reviewing but ultimately decided against it. My reasoning was that I really had nothing to say about it. There wasn’t much wrong with the movie, but I didn’t find it particularly funny, or particularly interesting, and I wasn’t particularly moved by it. Most importantly, I didn’t find Ladybird to be particularly different from any other standard teenage coming of age movie. Above all else it just felt safe. I wouldn’t say I liked it much, but I also wouldn’t say that I didn’t like it. The overwhelming praise for Ladybird is just baffling to me. That’s not the case with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Even though it’s an incredibly flawed movie, I completely understand why someone would end up loving this. It’s edgy, it’s different, it has something to say. It’s also something of a poorly written mess, but at least it’s trying something somewhat new. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ll take an admirable failure over competent blandness any day.

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Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri