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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Kathryn Newton, Lucas Hedges, Clarke Peters, Kerry Condon, Zeljko Ivanek, Brendan Sexton III, Samara Weaving, Nick Searcy, Amanda Warren, Sandy Martin and Darrell Britt-Gibson.

Screenplay by Martin McDonagh.

Directed by Martin McDonagh.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. 115 minutes. Rated R.

It’s hard to explain what Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about, or what makes it so good. However, it is easily one of the best films of the year – dark, funny, smart and unexpected. It is exciting, unpredictable and inscrutable in the ways that life is, and it is hard to turn away from.

Irish playwright turned movie writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, the play The Cripple of Inishmaan) has done some sterling work in his career(s), but Three Billboards may be his masterpiece. It is as smart, funny and periodically violent as a great lost Coen Brothers film with a stronger moral compass. It takes some truly hateful characters and makes you feel sympathy for them.

And it has one of the toughest, most ethically disorienting endings in recent cinema. However, even that is left a bit ambiguous.

Frances McDormand gets her strongest role in years – perhaps since the Coens’ Fargo – as Mildred Hayes, a bereft and bitter middle-aged woman whose daughter was violently murdered months earlier, and the investigation has grown cold. Mildred, who would be as toxically angry even if her daughter hadn’t been killed, but who has become even more jaded and angry due to the fact, decides to hold the police’s feet to the fire.

She rents out three long-unused billboards down the road from her home – and the site of her daughter’s death – to send a message to the cops. The three signs put their blunt message in capital letters against a blood red background: “RAPED WHILE DYING,” “STILL NO ARRESTS,” “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Interestingly, for a film that revolves around the billboards, their messages are rarely shown, particularly the incendiary first one, which only appears onscreen in two or three dramatically appropriate moments. Mostly we see the billboards from behind or when their messages are being blocked.

The road is off the beaten track and she isn’t even sure anyone will see them, but that Easter Sunday, right after they go up, they are noticed in a drive-by by a local cop named Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon is a loose cannon mama’s boy who is known locally for being a virulent racist and beating black suspects. He is horrified by the disrespect being shown to the department, and makes it his mission to get rid of the signs.

Chief Willoughby is the local police chief, wonderfully played by Woody Harrelson. He has been working on Mildred’s daughter’s murder for months and his inability to find the killer is one of the great disappointments of his career. He is also suffering with terminal cancer, and knows he likely will not live long enough to close the case. He’s initially annoyed by the signs, but eventually bemused by them.

From the antagonistic tone of the signs, and some of Mildred and the Chief’s arguments over what is to be done about finding the killer, you might think that the woman and the officer hate each other. The truth quickly becomes clear that this could not be farther from the truth, there is mutual respect and fondness there. This is particularly shown in a shocking scene where during his argument the Chief’s disease takes over and he inadvertently spits up blood on her, and she tries to comfort him as he is horrified and apologizing for his body’s malfunctioning.

In the meantime, the signs pull at the fabric of the town, dividing the people into two camps, the pro-police camp and the pro-Mildred camp. (And honestly, the pro-Mildred camp is significantly smaller.)

Circumstances spin out of control, in surprising and yet sadly inevitable directions.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is fascinating in many ways, but mostly because it does not choose sides. Mildred has every right to be angry, and yet many of the things she does are reckless and stupid. On the other end of the spectrum, Officer Dixon may be a horrifyingly dirty cop, but there is some good deep down inside him, a hidden jewel that Rockwell clings to.

Chief Willoughby seems to become the moral compass in this war of words (and other more violent means). His jaded-but-good-natured sense of humor and mortality is perhaps the healthiest reaction to everything going on around him. It is a shame that it takes staring death in its face to find that solace.

The Chief is one of the few truly good people in this town, with the exception perhaps of the local advertising exec (Caleb Landry Jones) who pays the price for doing business with Mildred, Mildred’s boss (Amanda Warren) who spends a few weeks in jail for spite as a dig at Mildred.

Probably the best and most tragic character is Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who is missing his sister, being ignored by his bereft mother, being used as a chess piece in a divorce with his philandering father (John Hawkes) and who has become caught up in a war with the town that he never started or wanted.

However, even if the people of Ebbing, Missouri are doing the wrong things, they are mainly doing them believing they are for the right reasons.

Expect to be seeing a lot about this film in Oscar season.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: November 24, 2017.

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