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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Evidently "Three Billboards" has become the official "in" movie at this time. And because of the promise from this superb cast, anticipation built as the opening credits concluded. However a mild gnawing suspicion soon formed in the back of my mind when most of the dialogue was littered with "F" words. Hardly a sentence could be delivered without generous portions of the word in every conceivable grammatical usage: noun, adjective, adverb, other. It's as if at the script meetings, a line could not be approved unless it contained a minimum of three "F" usages. Is it that we are tasked with believing that this is common small town speech; or is it that the use of the word must be included in any modern progressive banter? Its prevalence gradually came to be like fingernails scraping on a blackboard. It was doubly annoying after just recently watching I, Tonya, which suffered under the same handicap.

The film has two strong attractions: 1. a heavenly alluring title, and, 2. a cast of heavyweight actors. Unfortunately the movie was basically a clever plot device searching for a believable story to go along with it. Reportedly writer/director Martin McDonagh saw similar billboards regarding a crime somewhere in the southeastern U.S., and decided to write a story using the incidence. But having introduced the billboards, the screenplay soon abandoned the title, the billboards, and their usefulness.

[spoilers] At about 30 minutes into the film, the Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) visits Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) to explain to her why the investigation into her daughter's murder had stalled: there was little evidence, no eye witnesses, and the DNA and fingerprints did not match anyone in the criminal databases. So unless someone were to finger the perpetrator, there was little else that could be done. This is totally plausible, and in reality brought the entire movie's premise to an end. So with Mildred's and the film's justification for the plot pulled out from under them, all that followed was groundless, muddled, or silly.

Hitchcock stated to Francois Truffaut that in film, "Whatever is said instead of being shown is lost upon the viewer." In this case we are not shown the crime, and there is minimal description of it. So on good faith alone we are supposed to understand why the McDormand character has turned into a miserable, monomaniacal, wretch, whose sole purpose in life has become to embarrass, then terrorize an entire town-- but without justification.

In order to continue the film's shaky plot, they simply switched the focus of Mildred's rage to a dumb, hackneyed racist (what else?) deputy sheriff. Despite the character's triteness, he at least provided a suitable living breathing foil on which to base most of the rest of the movie.

Credit must be given to the fine performances by McDormand, Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and the inestimable John Hawkes, along with a first rate supporting cast.

But it was the screen play and dialogue that came up short. Several characters complete 2 or 3 major personality changes. Rockwell's deputy sheriff alone transformed from a moronic bigoted dufus to a sharp caring sleuth in the space of about 45 minute's screen time.

In the process many of the usual trite Hollywood cliches were featured: a mother enraged over her daughter's senseless killing (you go, girl!); the hick racist deputy; the crotch kick; a dwarf explaining that dwarfs are in fact real people; the new black replacement sheriff (who looked like he stepped off the appellate bench) to can the deputy and institute racial equality; the ogre ex-husband takes up with a younger woman; and the like. One looses count. And perhaps the writers did not know that pancreatic cancer does not cause coughing up blood.

In the end, the newly enlightened pairing of Mildred and the reformed deputy decide to go ahead and hunt to kill a man who they presume must have raped someone at some time. After all the daughter's killer had not yet been found, so someone deserves to die, right? But we're left with the question: will they really do it? Would this ending fit better on some other film?

Evidently this is all acceptable under the "black comedy" distinction. When the writers do not commit to credibility, anything goes. However in this case there was very little comedy, and the black tended more towards gray.

Doc's rating: 6 of 10, based on the acting.