Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Crime Doesn’t Pay And Neither Does Justice In Pitch Perfect Comedy-Drama

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing
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Noted Irish playwright Martin McDonagh—who picked up a movie camera to write and direct the finely tuned, perfectly toned 2008 crime dramedy In Bruges—returns to serve up the brilliant, bitter, verbosely titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It lands in roughly the same territory as the blackly comic, showboating early crime films of the Coen bothers, Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, but demonstrates far more empathy and depth of focus than those auteurs are generally concerned with.

Casting Francis McDormand (famous for her no-nonsense role in
Fargo) certainly brings to mind the work of the Coens. And for a brief while, viewers might be tempted to think of this as something from the Coens’ unfilmed file. But McDonagh’s film quickly separates itself from similar offerings. In the minds of the Coen brothers, everything—to a certain extent—is a flippant, existential joke. Look at their debut film, Blood Simple. Recall Ray’s (John Getz) hollow bark of a laugh in response to Abby’s (Frances McDormand) late-in-the-game line, “I haven’t done anything funny.” That moment sums up their glib “life is a joke” philosophy in a nutshell. In Three Billboards, on the other hand, everything is deeply, profoundly, painfully consequential.

McDormand, pretty much guaranteeing herself another Oscar nomination, stars as Mildred Hayes, a permanently angry divorcée whose teenage daughter was raped and murdered in small-town Missouri. It’s been seven months since the girl was laid to rest, and the local constabulary have done seemingly little to solve the case. Walking around with a look of impatience and barely restrained fury calcified onto her face, Mildred is searching for some way of venting her frustrations (other than taking them out on her hapless teenage son and her jerk of an ex-husband). Mildred finds the solution in a trio of long-abandoned billboards on the edge of town. Scraping up her meager savings, she rents them from the local advertising company and puts up a triptych of blunt messages castigating the local police chief for his perceived inaction.

This rash public enterprise sets off a domino effect in the tiny town of Ebbing. When we finally meet the object of Mildred’s ire, Chief Willoughby (a charming Woody Harrelson), he turns out to be a levelheaded fellow extremely popular with the locals. He calmly explains to Mildred that there are no leads and no witnesses in her daughter’s murder. It’s one of those sadly common crimes that may only be solved months or years from now when some convict drunkenly confesses to someone in a bar or spills the beans to his prison cellmate. Mildred is having none of that. Seven months on, she’s all raw nerves and agitated action. Any request to remove the billboards is met with harsh words and possibly a drill to the thumb (in the case of one uptight local dentist, anyway). Her none-too-practical solution to solving her daughter’s murder: Get DNA tests from every male in the world over the age of 8.

Making this tense situation far worse is the fact that Willoughby is quietly dying from cancer. Mildred’s campaign, righteous as it might be, is a victim of very bad timing. Adding to the unease is the fact that Willoughby’s second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell in one of his best, loosest roles), is a dimwitted mama’s boy infamous for having beaten confessions out of some black suspects. He, like Mildred, seems to have poor impulse control, and he makes for a particularly dangerous, loose cannon enemy. … Except that
Three Billboards isn’t interested in making enemies out of anyone. Over the course of the film, we come to realize that everyone here is simultaneously good and bad, each trying to do the right thing (in their own mind, anyway), but more often than not stumbling directly into the exact wrong thing. Cynical and dark-hearted as it might seem on the surface, McDonagh’s sharply written script hides a secret compassion for all of God’s creatures.

Believe it or not, all this murder and moral confusion is leavened by some bright bursts of character-based humor. You might actually be shocked to hear yourself laughing so much, given the coal-black story at the center of this slow-building tragicomedy. Rockwell’s comic-book-reading hothead gets most of the laughs—though McDormand’s biting, foul-mouthed dialogue scores some solid hits as well.

Between its corrosive sense of humor, its jaundiced look at small-town Americana and its cynicism about the entire concept of “justice,”
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri probably isn’t for mainstream audiences looking for a simple larf. But those attracted to interesting shadows will find a wealth of rewards here. The whole thing is so damn unexpected. The cast—even beyond the three leads and down into the supporting players—is irreproachable. Peter Dinklage, for example, pops in for just a couple of scenes as an unlikely, would-be romantic interest for Mildred. Given Mildred’s bootheels-in-the-dirt intractability, it’s a silly thought. Yet, in just a few minutes of screentime, Dinklage imbues his character with a poignant humanity. There are a handful of whiplash turns in the narrative, as well, stranding audiences in a place they probably didn’t expect, pondering whether people are actually capable of such niceties as change, forgiveness and contrition. It feels like the kind of sweet-and-sour tonal roller coaster the Grinch would have written—both before and after his heart grew three sizes.
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