Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is another film that is sure to garner the attention of critics and industry awards thanks to the lead performance. Like Lady Bird, it is a film that is propelled by the performance of its lead actress, Frances McDormand in this case. However, unlike Lady Bird, Three Billboards is not able to routinely hit its mark on the various aspects that go within the film, and when viewing the two films back-to-back, the flaws within Three Billboards begin to stand out.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a dramatic film about the actions of a woman who is pressuring the local police to find the culprit that murdered her daughter. In an effort to draw attention to unsolved crime, and thus put pressure on the police, she buys three billboards just outside of town asking why the crime has not been solved. The film carries on with escalating tensions between the mother, McDormand, and the police officers and townspeople who are opposed to her confrontational billboards.
Let’s get this out of the way first: this is a good film. Much of this review is going to focus on its shortcomings, but that doesn’t take away from that fact that McDormand puts on a very good performance in a film that has some quality high moments. It’s critical and audience scores both seem a bit high, but this is still a film that is worth seeing. Just bear in mind that it won’t be able to compete very well with some of the other top films of the year.
After having viewed this film only a few hours after Lady Bird, it was enlightening to see how this film missed on so many of the aspects that Lady Bird got right.
We’ll start with the characters. The strongest aspect of Lady Bird was its extensive cast of characters that were all distinct, realist and able to contribute to the overall enjoyment of the film. Three Billboards, while it has some strong characters, such as Mildred Hayes, played by McDormand, and William Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, it also has some characters that are weaker and more inconsistent. None of the characters feel as authentic as those with Lady Bird, they all have an element of movie-ness to them that can’t be overlooked. There are moments that come across as slightly unbelievable and even phony about the characters that weakens their impact within the film.
One of the major aspects that weakens the characters is the dialogue. The dialogue in Three Billboards at times feels overly reliant on cursing to convey it’s the tone it wants to set. Whenever there is an intense scene, or it needs to be apparent that there is dysfunction between characters, it seems as though the go to method was to slap in some extra cursing. Excessive cursing is itself not a detriment- films such as The Departed and Reservoir Dogs use the word, “f**k” multiple times a minute and they are both critically acclaimed, and there are many more- but when it comes across as forced and inauthentic, it begins to detract from the final product. Aside from unnecessary profanity, some of the dialogue sounds clunky and unrealistic which rubs off on the characters further dampening the impact they are able to have on the audience.
The final major aspect that Three Billboards misses is with the balancing act between darkly comedic parts of the film and the more dramatic or serious aspects. Once again, Lady Bird nailed the tightrope act necessary to balance two contrasting tones even within the same scene. Three Billboards is not able to adeptly shift from one tone to another without being a little clumsy or haphazard in its execution. It takes a very deft hand to be able to consistently ride the thin line between comedy and drama that films such as these need to ride, and Three Billboards is wobbly and can’t quite get the balance right as it stumbles a few times throughout the film.
Once again, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a quality film that is worth checking out, but it is important and useful to be aware of the differences between it and Lady Bird. While Lady Bird routinely hits the mark with what it is trying to accomplish, Three Billboards is just a little bit off every time. It is unable to quite get that necessary bulls-eye when it comes to characters, dialogue or tonal balance. If it was able to nail one or two of those of those aspects, it would compare far better to Lady Bird and potentially even be able to surpass it in quality. Unfortunately, the cumulative effect of its repeated near-misses results in a cinematic experience that, while solid, is too often clumsy, unrefined, and unpolished to be able to compete with films like Lady Bird.