Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Misery Tolerates Company in Ebbing, Missouri


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a disturbing but, ultimately, hopeful movie that abounds with characters whose lives are worth observing. They all exist on the same spectrum between cowardice and nobility, and it’s one of the great pleasures of the film watching them try to navigate that space together.

Rating: 9.5/11


Death, despair and destruction have made their home in the town of Ebbing, Missouri, and it’s hard to know who to blame. Like many archetypal small towns in the rural south of America, the issue is both systemic and steeped in tradition. Violence is commonplace, whether verbal, domestic or otherwise; for some, it’s as natural as breathing. Racism pulses through the local police department, while Ebbing’s citizens are primed to defend the esteemed amongst them from any form of criticism, warranted or not. You imagine the town’s motto may well be, “We don’t take kindly to your types around here!” It is not, in other words, the ideal place for a one-woman quest for justice, not when it butts up against maintaining the sacredness of the status quo.

But Mildred Hayes doesn’t frighten so easily. Played by Frances McDormand with a conviction and barely contained vulnerability that makes the film itself shudder, Hayes wants answers about what happened to her teenage daughter, Angela, who was raped and murdered more than half a year prior. As the local police weren’t able to determine the culprit, Mildred decides to take matters into her own hands by purchasing three billboards with the following plastered across them in garish red and black: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests?”, “How come, Chief Willoughby?” That certainly gets people’s attention.

The target of her remarks, Sheriff Bill Willoughby (a stirring Woody Harrelson), is the type of amicable police chief who is respected more for his long-standing in the community than for his capabilities. It’s an open secret throughout the town that he’s dying of pancreatic cancer, a condition that reflects the entrenched toxicity that has taken ahold of Ebbing in the wake of Angela’s death. As you might imagine, folks aren’t inclined to take Mildred’s attacks on their venerated sheriff lightly, let alone in his terminal condition. The result is a regional game of chicken between Mildred and the people of Ebbing, combated against her by the police, the church, her violent ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes, chilling) and even her own son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, pretty chill).

Let’s get thematic for a second, though. Most good films are sensible enough to reside in ambiguity. Good and bad guys are all very well and good as fundamentals of storytelling, but they don’t do shit to service a film’s tone or sense of nuance. Even the latest Star Wars made tremendous strides by delving further into the internal conflict of its characters. So it is with Three Billboards that writer/director Martin McDonagh has made a picture of profound equivocation. You have to be willing to angle your perspective in every instance, but there’s not a single irredeemable or impeccable character in the bunch here, which is an ideal circumstance for a movie about horrific deeds and quiet moments of kindness existing side-by-side.

Mildred avoids becoming a sullen sob story by rejecting that narrative outright at every opportunity. She swears with the creative acumen of a literary sailor, refuses to be swayed by Willoughby’s illness and kicks teenagers in the crotch who disrespect her vehicle. Then there’s Officer Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell as a man who embodies the word “disappointment”. Constantly in a drinking contest with himself and accused of some mightily heinous, racist shit, Dixon is – on paper, at least – a despicable man. Pitiable, maybe, but hardly worth our sympathy.

Throughout the film, our notion of these dichotomous characters contorts itself into a mass of contradictions. Mildred’s resolve is admirable, but her methods soon devolve into a territory far beyond questionable. Meanwhile, at one point Dixon – in a masterful scene captured in a single, frantic tracking shot – takes out his frustrations on a blameless third party, demonstrating an aptitude for violent retribution that is alarming considering his position of authority. Yet, when his redemption comes, it not only feels earned but tinged with a bristling, satisfying irony: he has a literal trial by fire, inflicted upon him by the very source of his anger, before being left to the mercy of the man he beat to a bloody pulp.

Which brings me to the serpentine brilliance of Martin McDonagh’s script. And look, I pledge immense respect to every other component of this film – from Carter Burwell’s immaculate score to Ben Davis’ bucolic cinematography and, of course, the resonant performances – but it’s truly splendid to have another Martin McDonagh picture to cherish. Having established himself as a master of black humour and surprising pathos with In Bruges (which, disclaimer, is my favourite film of all time), McDonagh springs the same trap upon us with Three Billboards to glorious effect, always having us on our toes before knocking the ground out from under us.

From scene to scene the dynamics at play can shift on a dime, in a manner both hilarious (the sudden dining room scuffle between Mildred, Charlie and Robbie) and frightening (the mysterious visitor to Mildred’s shop). And McDonagh’s iconic dialogue still crackles with the same intensity no matter the context, whether making jokes (“I didn’t call you an idiot. I asked if you was an idiot. It was a question.”) or during Mildred’s monologue to a deer, a moment that would feel ham-fisted in the care of a less conscientious writer.

What McDonagh does most assuredly, though, is to take an astoundingly vile topic, run it through the prism of real human beings – with their deficiencies, virtues and bizarre coping mechanisms – and mine something indescribable from it. It’s his consummate gift, to brandish the rawest aspects of people at us in a manner that’s both disconcerting and captivating. He breathes the messiness of life into the inherently tidy realm of fiction, distilling the essence of his characters without limiting them, portraying them without endorsing them, and exalting them without forgiving them.

2 Replies to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

  1. Just saw this film and couldn’t agree more with you about this absolute gem of a movie. It’s unusual for movie makers to treat their audience with such respect by not neatly tying up the narrative ends and presenting us with such nuanced characters. Brilliant script and acting performances. (A small quibble about the casting of Willoughby’s wife, even if she is Australian. To me she seemed too young and beautiful and her accent wavered between English, Aussie and American!)

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