Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Opening Wednesday, Nov. 22

The Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in question line a little-traveled byway called Drinkwater Road. In this forgotten place, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) revives a fading tragedy. She spends five thousand dollars to turn the weathered signs into beacons shining on her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder seven months ago. They read: “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?,” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?.”

Drinkwater Road is described as a stretch people drive down only “if they got lost or they’re retards.” This off-color quip works when a character says it once. But by the time the third local yokel makes the same crack, it becomes the canary in the coalmine of a tonally incoherent dark-comedy-drama that doesn’t have a clue how to manage its weighty themes and discordant plot.

Mildred is trying to embarrass the local police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), into action. Her rage and frustration are understandable, even laudable. She could be an avenging angel on a mission to topple a corrupt patriarchy. But Willoughby, who is dying of cancer, seems sincere in his desire to find the killer, and his investigation has hit a legitimate dead end. So it just seems cruel that Mildred puts up the billboards now, because, as she tells him, “they won’t be as effective after you croak.”

We also never understand why the townsfolk turn on a grieving mother because she scolds the police chief in some secluded signage. But turn they do, beginning with Willoughby and continuing with his deputy, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a cartoon racist who has a reputation for beating up African Americans.

British writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) uses Mildred’s victimhood to absolve her for every coarse invective and aggressive urge, however felonious or extreme. She drills a hole into the thumb of a reproving dentist. She sends a pious preacher packing with a diatribe about enabling pedophilia.

But McDonagh fails to coalesce the dramatic and dark-comedic elements (maybe the Coen brothers could have). The fictitious Ebbing was apparently conceived while binge-watching reruns of Carter Country and The Dukes of Hazzard. The denizens don’t act and talk like actual people; McDonagh’s trademark obscenities are so forced that they sound like bad punch lines. Mildred and her daughter casually call each other “cunts” in a flashback. Willoughby says “goddamn” a lot, whether over Easter dinner or while giving his kids water-safety tips. Mildred’s son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), calls his mom a bitch right before her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), pops in for a flash of domestic violence, interrupted by some kooky non sequiturs from his nineteen-year-old girlfriend.

There are supposedly lessons to learn in this aimless milieu. Indeed, the themes are so patent they might as well be on billboards: wrath, cataclysm, and redemption. Rockwell improves his performance after a mid-film event sends Dixon into a spiritual spiral and erodes Mildred’s moral high ground. The pair traverses hellfire, but their destination is less like earned salvation than weary resignation. The boundaries between good and evil are so blurry that we’re left in a state of ethical ambivalence, and the setting rings so false that we just don’t care. Three Billboards is neither the farce it thinks it is nor the emotional odyssey it could have been.