By Leslie C. Halpern
Sometimes a movie comes along with exceptional acting, intuitive directing, clever writing, and iconic scenes and phrases that create an exclusive cinematic world all its own. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is such a movie. Even so, it’s a world that’s not very enjoyable to visit, much less inhabit.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has a right to be angry – furious even. Her 20-year-old daughter was raped and murdered seven months ago, but the local police department of her small town has made no arrests in the case, and doesn’t have any suspects or persons of interest to investigate. The case has gone cold, but Mildred’s fury remains red hot. She rents three billboards outside of town on a nearly deserted highway; each sign focuses on Police Chief William Willoughby’s (Woody Harrelson) ineptitude.
An Escalating Situation
Soon the townspeople of Ebbing take sides in the billboard fiasco, and although their hearts are with Mildred, they’re against her written attack of the much-admired police chief. Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), for instance, worships his boss, Willoughby, as a father figure and has previously demonstrated a streak of brutality toward anyone disrespecting the law. This sets up a dangerously escalating situation between Mildred and Dixon, both of whom have fuses easily ignited.
Mildred’s antagonizing billboards, venom-spewing outbursts, and increasingly violent behavior affect her son’s (Lucas Hedges) life as well. Already known as the boy whose sister was murdered, he’s further ostracized as the boy whose mother has gone ballistic. There’s also Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes), a domestic abuser who recently found a 19-year-old girlfriend. Between her grief over her daughter, the disapproval of her son and ex-husband, and vengeance by many of the local citizens devoted to the police chief, Mildred is a woman with nothing left to lose.
There’s a lot going on in this small town, and most of it is not kind, pleasant, or fun. But just when you think a character’s all bad, he or she makes an abrupt left turn. The same is true for the seemingly “good” characters. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri takes many left turns, with red herrings and plot twists that will surprise most movie goers. Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage is randomly thrown into the mix as a local man sweet on Mildred despite her lack of style, grace, warmth, or friendliness.
Although the film has many strengths (especially the performances of McDormand, Rockwell, and Harrelson), it’s also strongly manipulative. Not every film needs to provide perfect closer, pat explanations, or a happy ending. But the constant pushing and pulling of viewer emotions and mind games make the visit to Ebbing deliberately unsettling and uncomfortable – a dark comedy heavy on darkness and light on comedy.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
- A distraught mother commissions three billboards reprimanding the local chief of police for his inability to arrest her daughter’s killer.
- Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes
- Writer-Director: Martin McDonagh
- Genre: Dark Crime Drama/Comedy
- Run Time: 115 minutes
- MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references)