Three Billboards Stands on Acting, Falls on Pacing

Ailbhe Daly

A latecomer in the race for the Oscars comes from Martin McDonagh with his first movie since Seven Psychopaths. Three Billboards tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a mother vying for the murder of her daughter to be solved.

When Three Billboards is good, it is truly incredible and worthy of the Best Picture nomination. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), is initially portrayed as the antagonist but turns out to be a decent man, conveyed through his meetings with Mildred. The issue they face in the attempted resolution of the murder is that there are no leads. Despite Willoughby genuinely wanting to help, there is little he can do.

When Willoughby isn’t on the screen, you find yourself missing his presence. Harrelson has an ability to make any character he plays intrinsically likeable and it is no different in Three Billboards.

McDormand plays the stony-faced Mildred excellently, crafting her into a character that is simultaneously likeable and also a bit of a hard ass. Her character is wrought with flaws and insecurities – something McDonagh succeeds in portraying in his movies – and this almost makes her more affable.

Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who has been recently implicated in the torture of black suspects, is a comic reading dope who could have gotten his police badge in a box of cereal. His character development is carefully planted through nuggets of information that are easy to miss. Gradually, the audience sees him actually using his knowledge to be a good cop. His development is one of the highlights of the movie but it’s hidden a little too well at points.

An acting master class from a truly impressive cast is what makes Three Billboards such a stand out movie but it is not without its issues. The first portion of the movie is very close to being perfect and doesn’t put a toe wrong. However, a series of uncomfortable gags, introductions to characters that don’t really matter and strange deviations from the story taint it irreparably.

A few wrong steps and discrepancies really let Three Billboards down. Mildred’s ex-husband is dating a woman far younger (and better looking) than he is, something that Mildred pokes fun at numerous times. But Willoughby’s wife is also far younger and better looking than him, yet nothing is said about it. It seems illogical and makes some of the more adolescent gags seem even more childish and you almost cringe a bit watching it.

The ever-impressive Peter Dinklage is victim to a slew of juvenile midget jokes and it really feels juxtaposed awkwardly among the humour, as well as wasting his immense talent. It also feels lazily slotted in and it’s hard not to have a mental call back to similar scenes from McDonagh’s debut feature ‘In Bruges’.

Three Billboards is far from a bad movie, but an impressive cast just isn’t enough to fix the glaring holes in the movie’s pacing or patch over the awkward gags.