Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand delivers a witty and compelling performance as a mother out for justice in this ingenious mix of drama and dark comedy from Martin McDonagh.
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Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh has established a signature sensibility over the course of eight plays and three feature films: tales of cruelty and spite, leavened with shockingly irresistible dark humor. That singular brew has never been more confidently served up than in his latest movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Somehow, McDonagh takes a story of immense grief and pain and, without undermining those grave elements, makes it one of the most bracing—and at times alarmingly funny—pictures of the year.

Frances McDormand, in a career-high performance, is Mildred Hayes, a woman enraged by the local police’s failure after many months to find the rapist and murderer of her daughter. And so, she decides to lodge a protest on those titular billboards on a lonely highway near town: “Raped While Dying.” “And Still No Arrest?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The chief in question is played by Woody Harrelson, and despite our initial impression from Mildred’s taunting, he’s a good man who simply hasn’t had a break in the case. And, oh yes, he’s fighting a serious cancer diagnosis.

Not helping matters is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a disgrace to the police department with his racist attitudes, anger issues and downright stupidity. Where Willoughby has the potential to placate the fiery and determined Mildred, Dixon heightens the tensions between her and law enforcement with every step.

McDonagh’s script takes some startling turns—several characters do not escape unscathed from the escalating small-town war. In his most daring narrative twist, McDonagh creates a path to redemption for Dixon, a development I didn’t quite buy in light of how vicious and idiotic the character has been up until that point. Yes, he’s under the thumb of a hateful harridan of a mother (Sandy Martin, stealing her every scene) and he finds encouragement at a crucial moment from his father surrogate Chief Willoughby, but I felt less charitable toward Dixon than his creator, despite the gifted Sam Rockwell’s game efforts to make the character more dimensional.

That caveat aside, Three Billboards does a remarkable job of balancing its very bleak and somber and very engaging elements. Much of the credit goes to McDormand, who consciously modeled her righteous crusader on a John Wayne western hero. She’s not afraid to show the rigid, unappealing side of Mildred, which is leavened by her spot-on delivery of McDonagh’s wicked barbs and insults. And Woody Harrelson, so often cast as a psycho, is a great counterbalance to Mildred and the movie’s other live wires, bringing innate decency and composure to a man being buffeted personally and professionally.

The excellent supporting cast also includes Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), memorable as the young advertising clerk who sells Mildred the billboards and pays a huge price for defying the police; Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) as a hapless suitor of Mildred’s; Abbie Cornish (from McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths) as Willoughby’s loving wife, Anne; Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) as Mildred’s exasperated son, Robbie; and John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) as Mildred’s abusive ex-husband, Charlie.

With Sylva, North Carolina substituting for the fictional hamlet of Ebbing, Missouri thanks to the meticulous work of production designer Inbal Weinberg, Three Billboards creates a persuasive mise-en-scène of small-town intrigue and eccentricity. It’s not a place you’d want to live, but with the constant narrative surprises that unfold, you’ll be very happy you visited.

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