Seven months after her daughter is raped and murdered, Mildred Hayes, frustrated with the police department’s lack of results, rents out three billboards, on which she asks the question “raped while dying, and still no arrests, how come, Chief Willoughby?” This, naturally, upsets many of her neighbors, including the aforementioned Willoughby, who considers this an unfair attack on his character, seeing as how he’s dying of cancer. He and his racist, incompetent deputy, Dixon, demand that she take the posters down, but she refuses. This leads to them taking drastic actions, like arresting her co-workers, and threatening the man Mildred pays to rent the billboards. And, well, things get crazy, and I mean CRAZY, from there.
Have you ever watched a movie that was great for the first half, but then, somewhere along the way, it just lost you? Well, I have. And it’s exactly what I experienced with this picture. For the first 40 minutes or so, I was loving every second of it. The set-up was interesting, the performances were SUPERB, and the dialogue, as expected from writer-director Martin McDonagh, was sharp, interesting, and darkly comedic. There was even one point, where Mildred monologues to a Priest about the Crips and the Bloods, that I actually started thinking that this was his best film yet.
But then something happened, which I won’t say here, that totally changed the tone and direction of the movie. And while I was extremely shocked by it, I was still willing to give the picture the benefit of the doubt. Maybe McDonagh was experimenting. Maybe he was trying to take this story in a direction we’d never seen before. Then something else happened, something that I will say here, that caused me to completely tune out. At one point in this movie, Dixon, who is feeling sad about something, goes over to the office of the man Mildred rents the billboards from, beats him and his secretary to within an inch of their lives, and even throws the former out the window. At that point, I just stopped caring. I already hated Dixon, but when I saw him beating an innocent woman, and throwing a guy who was just doing his job out a window, and then stomping on his face, I lost all interest in his character. Which was bad for the movie, since it later does everything in its power to make him seem likable and sympathetic. I understand that it is very common in fiction to give characters arcs where they start off bad and become good, but there are times when you can take it too far, and the characters are shown as so unlikable that you don’t want to follow them. That is exactly what happened with this movie, and Dixon. But beyond simply going too far, this film also suffers from what I will refer to as “Full Metal Jacket Syndrome.” This is when a movie’s first half is tight, well-constructed, and building up to something, but then its second half is meandering and pointless. The first half of this movie, where Mildred and Willoughby are squaring off, is so damn good, that when the second half, which completely abandons that dynamic, rears its ugly head, you almost want to scream with frustration.
Guys, if it seems like I’m angry, it’s only because I loved the director, and the first half of this movie, so much. In Bruges is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s got some of the funniest, most mean-spirited, and thought-provoking dialogue I’ve ever heard. And this movie does too. But whereas In Bruges held back, never letting it’s dark humor become grating, here, McDonagh goes so far into making characters seem unlikable that you just don’t give a shit after a while. Yes, the acting is superb. Yes, the dialogue is great. Yes, the premise is interesting. But the characters are too despicable to follow, the violence is disturbing, and the second half loses a lot of narrative steam. If you’re a fan of McDonagh, maybe you’ll like it. Or maybe not. Either way, I won’t be watching this one again anytime soon.