Watching Three Billboards… is a strange experience.
This is not to say the film itself is strange. No, quite the opposite. It has a very linear narrative, with only a few brief flashbacks set before the events that shape the film itself. Aside from this, it is a quiet and surprisingly sombre drama that was more maudlin and morose than the laugh-heavy trailer would initially suggest.
The film very much wants to be a Coen Brothers film (nothing wrong with this: after all, who does small town, pitch-black crime-capers better?). You only have to type “Did The Coen Brothers direct Three Billboards…” into Google and a whole host of websites come up on this very subject. The ambient guitar score was performed by Coen regular Carter Burwell (who also did the score for Martin McDonagh’s ‘In Bruges’ and ‘Seven Psychopaths’), and the main character is played by Coen regular and (Joel) Coen’s Wife, the Oscar-Winning Frances McDormand (Best Actress, Fargo, 1996).
Yes, the town is also rammed with small-town idiosyncrasies, eccentric characters and the plot is built around that classic Coen-esque story arc: the small time scheme which spins badly out of control (‘Blood Simple’, ‘Raising Arizona’ , ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’, ‘No Country For old Men’, ‘Burn After Reading’).
Loosely based on a real experience director McDonagh had twenty years ago while holidaying in Texas ( http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/la-en-mn-1130-martin-mcdonagh-20171129-story.html ), the uncomfortable marriage of awkward laughs and grisly violence are both Coen Brothers’ tropes too.
As usual, you may roughly know plot, but nothing will be revealed here. The story does take some very surprising turns and the core cast float in and out of it at varying points, keeping the viewer in suspense and some element of bewilderment as to where the story is heading.
The script, – for anybody who has never seen a Martin McDonagh film, such as ‘In Bruges’ or ‘Seven Psychopaths’ , or even one by his Brother John Michael McDonagh: the magnificent ‘Calvary’ and ‘The Guard’ – is the usual mix of sly and cynical musings about random observations, knowing and acerbic wit and seething, repressed anger.
Whether it be racist insults, fury at the lack of progress on the case or simply disbelief at the stupidity of some of the locals, no social taboo stone is left unturned.
For my comedic tastes, the cast of characters seemed a bit too manufactured. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are definitely towns like this in the Deep South, I just wasn’t sure how funny I found it all on the screen: Dwarf, black residents, bimbo newsreader, incompetent racist Red Neck cops, it all seemed a bit too fake for my tastes. The eccentric cast seems manufactured purely so they can all take relentless pot-shots at each other, and pot-shot they do, so subtlety is definitely not the name of the game here.
This is not to say I have a problem with unsubtlety in my humour (I LOVE Austin Powers, The Interview, Team America, Bad Santa, to name but a few), as long as it fits the story coherently, but to me it It all seemed like it was just trying too hard to be funny and just came off as contrived, meaning I never found the film as funny or as gripping as I was expecting to : it was cringey and chucklesome, rather than brutal and uproarious.
The cast – Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes and Caleb Landry Jones – are, of course, uniformly excellent and all use their limited screen time to maximum effect. However, I couldn’t help but think that some of them were criminally underused, particularly John Hawkes and Abbie Cornish, who are routinely excellent in everything they are in.
Much like the best works of Clint Eastwood, the direction is sparse, lean and unfussy, but having seen this film two and a half weeks ago now, I can safely say I found the whole film – possibly, like many a great film, crushed under the weight of its own hype – distinctly underwhelming and I genuinely can’t decide whether I enjoyed it or not.
This film is definitely worth watching as a two hour piece of slightly sombre entertainment but it left me with a strong need to revisit some classic Coen Brothers films to see the pitch-black, small-town crime-comedy goods delivered properly.
All-in-all, a two-thirds satisfying crime comedy that was neither funny nor violent enough for my tastes and an ending that will leave swatches of viewers absolutely reeling.