Film Review: Three BillBoards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Review by: Belle McIntyre
Sometimes I don’t mind being wrong and this is one of those times. I did not rush to see this film on account of it is not my preferred genre. It is angry, violent, brutally raw and full of nasty people behaving abominably. Chief among them is the protagonist, Mildred (Frances McDormand), whose daughter seven months prior was hideously raped and murdered. The murderer has still not been found. Furthermore, the case appears to be dead, with no remaining leads available. Mildred is consumed by grief mixed with a nagging guilt that she is somehow responsible. She is fueled by impotent rage and righteous indignation.
McDonagh, who also wrote the film, has created a fully fleshed-out, bleak portrait of a small southern town you would not want to live in. Filled with ignorant, angry, narrow-minded working class folks. They are largely racist, homophobic and most assuredly would have voted for Donald Trump. Ironically, the most enlightened and admirable (this is hugely relative, with a very low bar) of the lot is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Yet, he is the one singled out and pressured by Mildred to solve the crime and deliver justice for her daughter. She is a determined avenging harpy. She is anger personified.
When she rents three disused billboards near her home and the location of the murder, the message emblazoned on the billboards call out the popular police chief in a strident and mortifying public display. She gets local news coverage, which further humiliates the chief and begins to turn the town against her. There is a simmering backlash building which manifests in flare-ups of hostility toward Mildred as well as her teenage son (Lucas Hedges) by his classmates. Mildred’s default response is typically to strike back with exponential force. She soon finds herself alone against the world, and no amount of reasoning seems to get through. She does come to partially understand that Willoughby is not her enemy. But when he dies, the dimwitted bully and second-in-command, Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes over. He is even more of a loose cannon than Mildred. Booze, power, a taunting rancorous mother, and a mission to avenge the death of the chief fuel Dixon. He goes on an over-the-top terrifying violent rampage, which escalates way out of control ending in a devastating conflagration.
In the aftermath, there is a surprising new plot twist, revelations from Chief Willoughby provided by posthumously delivered letters, unexpected alliances, and what appears to be a ratcheting down of the overt violence endemic in this town. On the other hand, that may or may not be the case. We are left wondering where it will go. The one sure thing is the sustained level of unbridled brutality could not continue. The film is gripping and thoroughly exhausting and all one keeps wishing for is that something can save these people from themselves and bring them some peace.
If it is hard to imagine how this can be a comedy, you will just have to take my word for it. In it’s over-the-topness it reminds one of the Coen Brothers, or Quinton Tarantino. The characters are not complete stereotypes, as McDonagh provides them with complex motivations and back-stories. The whole ensemble is excellent. Peter Dinklage, the town dwarf, who has the hots for Mildred, is reliably charming and funny. Red (Caleb Landry Jones), the advertising guy who owns the billboards is diffidently dorky and appealing. Frances McDormand is flawless in her signature ability to portray unflinchingly, unappealing, all too human characters. Woody Harrelson gets to be the one good guy and he is superbly able to reveal a world of inner emotion just in his expressive brow. This one really leaves a mark.