Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh creates some of the most unlikeable characters you cannot stop watching. His debut film, In Bruges (2008), features a couple of hit men sent to a Belgium town after one of them bungles a job. Things get more complicated-and violent-from there as McDonagh explores themes of vengeance and redemption. The entertaining but derivative Seven Psychopaths (2012) deals with a writer having trouble finishing his script, also named Seven Psychopaths. He gets involved with a gangster, at which point writer’s block is the least of his troubles.

For his third film, McDonagh returns to themes of vengeance and redemption. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the story of a mother who challenges local law enforcement to find her daughter’s killer. It is also a searing commentary on police brutality and small town mores, leavened by dark comedy.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has been waiting months for the police to find the person who raped, murdered, and incinerated her teenage daughter. To spur the police into action, Mildred leases three billboards on a little-used road outside of town. The signs read: Raped While Dying. Still No Arrests. How Come, Chief Willoughby?

Police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) sees the billboards and alerts his chief. Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is more sympathetic than annoyed. He explains there is little the police can do. They could not find a match for the DNA found at the crime scene. He says that any evidence surfacing in a crime like this tends to be random, not the result of police investigations. Mildred is not satisfied by Willoughby’s comments. She makes no allowances whatsoever for his serious health problems.

Townspeople react to the billboards by criticizing Mildred. The inference is that a woman has no business questioning the actions of police. Her abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes), now with a nineteen-year-old girlfriend, is openly antagonistic toward the billboards. Son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) finds them embarrassing. A priest visits Mildred to try to persuade her to take down the billboards. She dispatches him with a tongue-lashing.

Dixon takes the billboards personally. A racist Momma’s boy, he is prone to inappropriate displays of power. He has Mildred’s co-worker arrested and beats up the man who rented her the billboards. Willoughby allows Dixon to get away with these abuses of power, but it is questionable how much longer Willoughby’s health will allow him to stay on as chief.

This is McDormand’s best role since her Oscar-winning turn in Fargo (1996). She is phenomenal here, making the most of Mildred’s eruptions and silences. Martin McDonagh’s world is violent and profane, which makes it all the more remarkable that so many of Mildred’s best moments are subtleties.

Perhaps most telling to me is a flashback, the only time her daughter appears in the film. Mother and daughter argue; Mildred makes a harsh, flippant remark right before her daughter leaves. The scene makes you realize that the last person Mildred will have to forgive is herself.

Rockwell’s role has the most pronounced arc of the three leads, and he does a masterful job of conveying the changes in Dixon. Harrelson is wonderfully cast. The scenes between him, McDormand, and Rockwell are wonderful.

The cinematography by Ben Davis and score by Carter Burwell do a lovely job of capturing the flavor of small town America. It serves as an ironic contrast to the goings-on in Ebbing.

This is a thought-provoking and highly relevant film, guaranteed to afflict the comfortable.

Theme: Crime + Dark Comedy

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