Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

by Carrie Kahn on November 17, 2017

Superb cast anchors McDonagh’s outstanding southern tale  

Grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) expresses her frustration with her daughter’s stalled murder investigation via three billboards. 

“Raped while dying / And still no arrests / How come, Chief Willoughby?” So read the titular three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s brilliant, searing new blackest of black comedies. Whether the picture is correctly classified as a comedy – as its trailer would have it – may be a point of argument, however. While the film is not without its head-shaking, laugh-out-loud moments, they serve as counterpoint to the overarching dark, almost biblical tale that envelopes them, which will leave the viewer contemplative and affected for days after the credits roll.

McDonagh, whose 2008 screenplay for In Bruges was nominated for an Oscar, is also an award winning playwright whose material often takes an unflinching look at violence and redemption. Three Billboards continues that examination, and we find a big clue as to where McDonagh is going with his story in an early scene, when a bored ad agency employee is seen reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. That young ad man Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) is shown reading that particular southern gothic classic is a harbinger of things to come, as events unfold in the small, fictional southern town of Ebbing, Missouri in a thematic echo of O’Connor’s best known work about violence and grace.

It’s Red who places the three billboards for Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose frustration with the stalled investigation into her daughter’s abduction, rape, and murder seven month prior prompts her to pay for the billboards that call out Ebbing’s Chief of Police, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). That Willoughby is dying of pancreatic cancer is of no concern to Mildred, nor is the effect the billboards have on his department and the town. And so McDonagh sets the pieces in motion for a heady story of grief and love and revenge and salvation. McDonagh’s story is peppered with quirky, utterly unique characters, but none seem superfluous, and all are more complex than the viewer might assume upon first meeting.

Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) has words with Mildred (Frances McDormand).

McDonagh managed to assemble a top notch cast to bring his story to life, which is a huge part of the reason the picture works so well. McDonagh reportedly wrote Mildred’s role with McDormand in mind, and she’s never been better, using her tough, acerbic persona to mask layers of hurt and grief that leave her bitter, angry, hopeful and hopeless, often all at once. And in Chief Willoughby, Harrelson creates an indelible portrait of a decent man trying every day to uphold the law, serve his community, and run a police department in a part of the country still brimming with residual racism and distrust. Willoughby has the weight of the world on him, and Harrelson lets us see that clearly, and without pity.

But the MVP here is Sam Rockwell, and the Academy may as well engrave his name on the Best Supporting Actor Oscar statuette right now; he’s that good. As police officer Jason Dixon, Rockwell, who’s long been one of our most versatile character actors, brings to life a character so steeped in his small town upbringing and so full of petty grievances that at first the viewer thinks Dixon is merely a bumbling, meaner Barney Fife. But both McDonagh and Rockwell are too smart for something that one note, and Dixon has perhaps the most realistic – and the most interesting – story arc of any character in the film. That Rockwell can so naturally and almost imperceptibly convey a slow awakening to long buried innate goodness is a thing of beauty to watch, and is perhaps the thematic crux of the picture.

Mildred (Frances McDormand) and Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) try to come to terms. 

Even the smaller parts are exceptionally cast. Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges plays McDormand’s son, holding his own in quick-witted sparring matches with his mother, and John Hawkes, as Mildred’s ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage, as a compassionate neighbor, bring their A-game to their few small but key scenes.

McDonagh’s script is full of unexpected moments both quiet and small and loud and large, and his stellar cast is more than up to the task of bringing all his disparate narrative elements to life. A brutal beating might follow a playful cereal fight, for example; a gun shot may follow a gentle bed time scene. At one point, a character solemnly recites that “anger begets greater anger,” and even though that sounds like a trite and somewhat obvious insight, in McDonagh’s hands, it takes on much more meaning, as we watch his characters struggle to do the right thing in the face of unspeakable tragedy and despair. If anger begets greater anger, McDonagh seems to be saying here, perhaps love can beget greater love. And, if not, true grace may at least come from the very act of trying to halt the otherwise unending ancient cycle of an eye-for-an-eye.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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