Review: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

There’s a lot in American culture that people don’t talk about; much of that has changed over the last year or so, but police brutality and rape culture are divisive issues all the same.  It has taken an English writer and director, Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) to bring a brutally honest discussion of these issues to the masses.  His dark comedy/drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is one long cry against these issues, and the system that so often protects wrongdoers in this country.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a single mom grieving her daughter, who was raped and murdered seven months ago.  Fed up with the polices’ inability to make any headway in the case with the culprit still on the loose, Mildred rents three old billboards on a lonely stretch of highway outside her small town.  When completed, the billboards all together read, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”  For a small and largely conservative town like Ebbing, it’s a bold move.

Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is Ebbing’s police chief, who is sympathetic to what Mildred is going through but also doesn’t believe the billboards are very fair to him.  His colleagues and many of the other residents of Ebbing, however, take a less kind stance.  Many of the police officers are racist and just downright inefficient, like Dixon (Sam Rockwell) whose stupidity is simultaneously laughable and disturbing.

Three Billboards 2
Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell

But McDonagh’s film gives many of those characters a chance at redemption—even Dixon.  Mildred is looking for redemption too, not just for her daughter but for herself, as she seems to feel that her daughter’s murder was partly her fault.  But the film’s characters don’t achieve that redemption by taking the high road.  We sympathize with Mildred immediately because she is a grieving mother, but she’s a very stubborn, very sour, and very violent individual.  Her strength is admirable, but as the film progresses she channels it into becoming a vigilante of sorts.

But even as Mildred straight up breaks the law, we are still at least mostly on her side.  “Three Billboards” confronts viewers with the uncomfortable truth about America, and lets us live vicariously through a woman who finally won’t take “no” for an answer, and takes matters into her own hands.  It’s a dream of what so many of us would like to do when cheated by the system, a system that this film presents as broken and barely functional.

McDonagh employs a lot of black comedy in his screenplay, and “Three Billboards” often is laugh-out-loud funny, a combination of humorously blunt dialogue and an escalating series of insane—and insanely violent—situations.  But while the story could easily have spiraled out of control as the film reached its climax, its three lead actors keep in firmly in check.  Rockwell gives one of his performance as Dixon, a terrible person who is such a loser it’s hard to completely hate him; the fact that there is more to his character beneath the surface is a nice surprise as the third act unravels.  Harrelson is the voice of wisdom in the film, gently guiding each character in the direction they need to be headed.  The rest of the supporting cast includes Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s teenage son Robbie, Caleb Landry Jones as nervous advertising man Red Welby, and Peter Dinklage as James, the Ebbing local with a small but integral role in revealing a portion of Mildred’s character.  But it’s Mildred who steals the show, and McDormand who gives her best performance in her already impressive career.  McDormand owns the character, with all her strengths and weaknesses, her impeccable comic timing and spot-on delivery of all her dialogue.  You’d be hard-pressed to find another performance as layered and fascinating from another actress this year.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is Martin McDonagh’s best work, and one of the best films this year.  It’s an entertaining story with a pleasing series of twists and turns, but a challenging and a timely one, one that forces us to take a look at ourselves and our society and, hopefully, be inspired to start making some changes for the better.

Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated R.

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