Here's my current frustration at the diminished state of film criticism. I could, in this moment, point you to a whole lot of reviews talking about how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an urgent text for our modern times, taking on as it does the issue of how violence against women goes under-reported and under-prosecuted, and how justice can only be gotten by force of will (this is a too-generous reading). I can also point you to a whole lot of reviews talking about how it is a dangerous, faulty text for our modern times, diminishing the problem of racism and police brutality against marginalised groups (this is a substantially-too-ungenerous reading). But what I cannot point you to is any review - or to any individual, really, save for one wise man who warned me and alack! that I did not pay more heed to his warning - talking about how Three Billboards just absolutely looks like hell.

Like hell. I'm honestly at a little bit of a loss to explain just how the visuals could look that soft and smudgy, in a film released by a major company during the heat of the Oscar race. It certainly cannot be what it looks like; because it looks like the filmmakers didn't balance the contrast in the raw digital footage, but just made it into a movie, straight out of the camera. And that's actually unimaginable. So the only solution is that somebody wanted it to look this way: director/producer Martin McDonagh, or cinematographer Ben Davis most likely, and shame on them for it. And shame on them for the clunkiness in the compositions (so many boxy medium close-ups!) and the utterly dire lighting in the night scenes. I have a long-standing rule that I've not mentioned in a long time, so it bears bringing up: is a given movie more meaningful or enjoyable than listening to the same cast recite the same screenplay as a radio drama? And if the answer is "no", or even "not really", then this is to me a failed film. And in the case of Three Billboards, and its looks-like-hell images, I think we have a film that might be more enjoyable as a radio drama.

That drama, whether audio or audio-visual in nature, is the story of one Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was raped and murdered months ago, to the apparent indifference of the snoozy police department in Ebbing, Missouri, overseen by Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Finally giving up hope that basic human decency will motivated the cops to do their duty as protectors of the law, Mildred opens the film by steamrolling into the office of Red Wilby (Caleb Landry Jones), the young owner of a company that operates various advertising sites around Ebbing, including three ancient billboards on a quiet road outside town. She rents these billboards for a year, requesting that they be plastered with monochromatic posters, black text on red fields, reading, in order: "RAPED WHILE DYING" "AND STILL NO ARRESTS" "HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?"

This triggers a firestorm of controversy, particularly given that it's an open secret in town that Willoughby is dying of cancer (Mildred admits that this was a motivating factor: it would be harder to use the attack to sway public sympathy her way after he's dead). Everybody gets a little mad at Mildred, but Willoughby is mad and sad - we'll find out before too terribly long that his apparent inactivity has nothing to do with laziness, everything to do with the total absence of even the most tenuous, circumstantial leads in the case - and Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is mad enough to be outright raving. And here is my first problem with the script: I'm not quite sure why this general social anger happens. Dixon and Willoughby, sure. But the big flaw of Three Billboards, as a piece of writing, is to me that McDonagh, such a sharp moralist when he's working with his fellow Irishmen - nine years on, and I'll still defend In Bruges against all comers, to say nothing of his excellent work in theater before he ever once made a motion picture - has such a generic, insubstantial idea of what makes small-town America tick (this makes a pattern, I think: prior to now, McDonagh's weakest piece of writing was the script for his second film, 2012's Seven Psychopaths, which also took place in the United States, but had Colin Farrell in the lead role).

The most generous possible thing I can say about the film is that it feels like McDonagh's attempt to bring Ibsen's An Enemy of the People to 21st Century Missouri, complete with the thick symbolic Mob Mentality that Ibsen only barely made work because of how flagrantly metaphorical he meant the play to be. Movies can, indeed, be that metaphorical, and they often are; but I think they can only be so successfully if they combine that metaphor with a certain florid excess of style, or at least a firm break from aesthetic realism. And as mentioned, the most salient aesthetic fact of Three Billboards is that it looks like it was shot by people who don't know that you have to color correct ALEXA footage. Which is a break from aesthetic realism, I guess, but for poor reasons.

The incapacity to actually understand the social rhythms of rural America is also, I think, what's behind those shrill political arguments I mentioned up in the first graf. The thing is, situating this script within what I know of McDonagh's work, I don't believe he meant for this to be about those messages at all - it seems to me here that we have a philosophical work about how harboring rage and hate is toxifying to the soul. It is the thing that best explains why Mildred and Dixon should both be so centrally located in the film, and why Willoughby's practically saintlike behavior in the film's second half makes sense: they are both consumed by hate (Mildred towards cops, Dixon towards African-Americans, a personality trait the film posits rather than demonstrates), and he is able to demonstrate to them why this is not good. Which is, as themes go, among the most unassailable, fine, and wise that you could put into a piece of art; and yet McDonagh has selected as his not-important-in-and-of-themselves case studies the two most touchy subjects in American political discourse in the mid-2010s: sexual violence against women and police brutality against African-Americans. If nothing else, this is strategically inept.

Anyway, what hauls all of this just barely over the edge from "mild failure" to "mild success in my eyes is that, underneath it all, the film has two things I like almost as much as I hate the ugly-ass cinematography: mostly strong performances and a particular phenomenal turn from Frances McDormand, and some crackling editing, by Jon Gregory (who also cut In Bruges). Gregory seems to be alone in the conviction that McDonagh's script is meant to be mostly funny (McDonagh seems to have even lost track of this, given his handling of the cast), and he cuts it accordingly, with rhythmic beats that skitter up to punchlines and then leap past them with a terrific accumulation of nervous energy; it's cutting that very much recalls the earlier Coen brothers (the whole film feels like somebody's best attempt at a Coen homage that loses its nerve around every corner), more cutting and sardonic than good-humored, but that's exactly the tone that the script ought to have, if it weren't being swallowed up.

As for McDormand, I can't think of a single better performance she's given since Fargo way back in 1996; if we accept that Three Billboards is more about the self-negating awfulness of harboring ill-will and hate, rather than about a passionate, overweening fight for justice at any cost, I think that this feeling is tangible in every one of her expressions, worn like lead weights on her tensed-up, worn face (before accepting the role at the age of 58, McDormand worried that she was too old for the part, and she was right; but she makes this work to her benefit and the film's). She's uniquely good at delivering McDonagh's barking, crass dialogue, making it less about the joy of elaborate cursing, than the self-amusement of a woman who has concluded that making other people unhappy and uncomfortable is to be the last pleasure afforded to her in this hell world, so she had best make it count.

It's good enough work to make everybody else in the cast seem a little thin in comparison; Harrelson is my ready pick for the film's next best cast member, in part because he wears the mantle of "has been dying of cancer long enough for it to be more disappointing than scary" so very well, in part because the script makes too many people cowed in awe of Mildred's rants, and Willoughby is one of the only people able to stand his ground. But nobody's bad, and many people are quite good: John Hawkes in a pungently mean little role, Peter Dinklage in a peculiar, go-nowhere role that he nonetheless invests with weight, because he's Peter Dinklage. Sam Rockwell's steady accumulation of best supporting actor citations is bizarre - by no measure I can think of is he better than Harrelson, for starters, and he's playing to the limits of the script more - but he's fine enough as a man who covers up his unhappiness with deliberately provocative viciousness.

All of this makes Three Billboards a sufficient collection of eccentrics, but it's not much of a story, and it's a damp fizzle as a portrait of anything resembling a community that I believe in as more than a collection of screenwriting conceits. I did not fail to enjoy the film, or at least the film's cast, but I've never found McDonagh less insightful or sharp-tongued or witty. It's a colorless little thing, and not just in its meager visuals.