MOVIE REVIEW: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri



Special Presentation selection of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival


Martin McDonagh’s new film puts prickly in the pastoral, glazing its country charm with absolute acid every chance it gets.  Part stern crime drama and part small-town chicanery, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri displays the next level of McDonagh’s talent and potential.  Always the sharp storyteller since his roots on the Irish stage, McDonagh’s writing prowess elevates a premise that would fall flat as pure farce in other hands (say the Coen brothers) with a sharp edge for the honesty of consequences.

The narrative of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is simple enough to buy yet eccentric enough to welcome the preposterous.  On a capricious impulse, a late middle-aged woman named Mildred Hayes sees a canvas of inspiration in form of three neglected billboards she passes on the rural road near her home.  Played by Fargo Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, Mildred commissions a unifying message across the three that’s powerful enough to stop people in their tracks:

“Raped while dying”
“And still no arrests”
“How come, Chief Willoughby?”

LESSON #1: THE EFFECTIVENESS OF BILLBOARDS-- Need to say something big, loud, and to a wide audience?  That’s the power of billboards since the advent of cars a century ago expanded the possibilities and market for large-form outdoor advertising that had been around since the 1830s in this country.  They’re inescapable in towns of any size from hundreds to millions and they sure get their point across in memorable ways.  Imagine now if they were a platform for a personal soapbox and not just an ad for a new car.

In eleven painted words on red backgrounds, Mildred Hayes shows that she has a colossal bone to pick and is willing to make it public.  As it turns out, her daughter Angela (TV actress Kathryn Newton) was raped and murdered seven months prior, a case that has quickly gone cold from perceived inaction.  The police chief called out is Sheriff William Willoughby (a second-billed Woody Harrelson), a tired man struggling with the death sentence of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis shortening his family time and career legacy.  Mildred Hayes isn’t standing on a corner bull-horning and picketing the police department.  She’s not running her mouth any more than she has to.  Mildred sent a single and stoic message through her billboards and now waits for the public pressure to force hands.

LESSON #2: THE EFFECTIVENESS OF A PUBLIC ATTACK OF WORDS-- Putting a public statement out there like that and naming a target is completely the definition of starting sh-it, even with stoicism.  But it works.  Put the message out large enough and loud enough and people will see and listen.  An attack like that makes people answer and react.  It forces the receiving audience to weigh the two sides of words and choose who to believe.

The billboard message sends shockwaves of outrage all over town.  Willoughby and his family defend constant criticism.  Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) is embarrassed.  Their remaining high school-aged son Robbie (Manchester by the Sea Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges) would just as soon gladly see this unwanted attention and the constant reminder of his lost sister go away.  The worst of it comes from Officer Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell.  He is a drunken, sweaty, reckless, and incompetent excuse of an officer protected by the badge, title, and uniform despite his own checkered record of abusing citizen collars.   

No one is quite who they seem to be in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  When the pressures of guilt and honesty are applied to the many characters listed above (and others played by Caleb Landry Jones and Peter Dinklage), their truer traits and flaws come to the surface like rain drawing out new blooms of promise or the nightcrawler worms of hidden ugliness.  McDonagh’s script bears those revelations out in sardonic diatribes, musings, and monologues.  While the words are brilliant, the effect is incongruent balancing the dark humor and the serious looming peril.  The heartless pretending to show heart creates wobbly and chaotic poetry.  Often, this film’s confrontations feel like preening awards bait trying to be a message film targeting some larger issue of social righteousness.  

Nevertheless, participating in this type of colliding character ensemble is an actor’s dream.  Harrelson’s fatigued mortal lawman caps a banner year built on War for the Planet of the Apes, The Glass Castle, and LBJ.  Sam Rockwell deserves to be a shoe-in Best Supporting Actor nominee for channeling his manic personality into a volatile one.  He is mesmerizing taking what is supposed to be a one-note character we are supposed to hate and channeling pathetic sadness from within.  Still, no one packs more punch than Frances McDormand in the lead.  Her degree of coiled vitriol and caustic vigor is unwaveringly tremendous.  The prospect of conveying difficult emotions washed down with bracing comedy clearly brought greater initiative than normal from all involved.

LESSON #3: CULPABILITY AS A MOTIVATOR-- The two levels of effectiveness from Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 pushed the agenda to keep Angela’s case in the public eye.  The increased awareness has forced all involved to look long and hard at their personal responsibility in the matter.  Top to bottom, everyone feels culpable to some degree and that personal measure of dread motivates their behavior to do their job, find answers, and establish closure.