Mark Reviews Movies

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Zeljko Ivanek, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, Clarke Peters, Sandy Martin, Samara Weaving, Kerry Condon, Amanda Warren

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 11/10/17 (limited); 11/17/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 16, 2017

Just about every character in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is angry. They have their reasons. Some of those reasons are good and well-founded. Others are not. We can understand the reasons, though, and it's in understanding that we can sympathize with these characters, as callous and cruel and hardheaded as they occasionally—or far too often—may be.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh has crafted a special film. It is populated with characters who seem sympathetic in their motives but unsympathetic in their actions, who seem unworthy of sympathy in any way, or whose qualities and motives are only revealed in their final moments, but McDonagh has limitless compassion for them—not in spite of their flaws but because of them.

It's set in a fictional Midwestern town that looks like a fine place to visit, comes across as a terrible place in which to live, and ultimately feels about as authentic as any real small town in the middle of the country. McDonagh doesn't look down upon such a place, though. It is what it is—backwards in some ways, as well as a hotbed of gossip and rumor and stewing animosity, yes, but also as capable of goodness as it is of malice.

The key to Ebbing is its citizenry, and the key to those people is how willing or unwilling they are to seeing things beyond themselves. About halfway through the film, there's a sequence that completely changes the dynamic of its story and makes the already-shaky relationships between these characters even more hostile. The scene and its aftermath, though, are vital for more than the plot and the how characters proceed to interact with each other. It serves as the first time that we know a character is genuinely acting on behalf of others—as unlikely as that may seem, given the act itself. It's heartbreaking, not only for how McDonagh frames the act within the context of how it affects the other characters, but also for how far removed the character's motives are from those of everyone else in town.

All of the fuss begins when Mildred (Frances McDormand, thoroughly sympathetic, despite how intimidating and stubborn as the character can be) rents a series of three billboards along a rarely-used road outside of town. The billboards are plastered with three messages, one for each sign in black letters against a blood red background. We first see them in reverse order. The last one asks the police chief why nothing has been done. The middle one points out that no arrests have been made. The first one chills: "Raped while dying."

That was the fate of Mildred's teenage daughter: raped and murdered, her burnt body left along the side of that road. We can see a spot of charred grass while Mildred tends to some flower pots that she leaves near one of the boards.

Everyone in town is mixed about the placement of the signs. Everyone understands her frustration with the lack of an arrest or even any evidence that could lead to one. Most understanding, it seems, is Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, giving us a tough shell for a man who's a big softy at heart), the police chief, who visits Mildred to go over the facts of the case again. There are no suspects. The DNA evidence has led to a dead end.

Mildred argues that the police aren't doing enough, and Willoughby says they're doing everything within the limits of the law. They're at a standstill. Adding to the problem is the fact that Willoughby has pancreatic cancer. She could have waited on the signs, the chief argues. Mildred offers that wouldn't have been as effective after he "croaked."

On the less sympathetic side are people like Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a patrol cop with a bad reputation for his harsh treatment of the black population in town. "Torture" is the word that Mildred uses. He is incompetent and possesses a short fuse—a dangerous combination, particularly when he feels threatened. It seems that he feels that way a lot, especially now, with signs suggesting that his entire profession is useless. Back at home, Dixon's momma (Sandy Martin) feeds him fuel in condescending words. Later, she also voices some opinions on black folks that instantaneously paint a picture of how Dixon became the at-times violent racist that he can be.

McDonagh does this a lot, either directly through flashbacks or in such little moments in the present. The current fuss may have begun with the billboards, but the film shows us how all of these central characters have come to their respective points of contention within themselves, with each other, and against the whole world.

For Mildred, it's a flashback to the day of her daughter's murder. A fight broke out between them, and words were spoken that, it turns out, could never be taken back. Mildred was married to Charlie (John Hawkes), an abusive man who has since started dating a 19-year-old woman (played with great comic timing by Samara Weaving). The major difference between the exes, Charlie says, is that he knows his current actions won't bring his daughter back.

There are other flashes, too, which have little to do with the anger. There's an interrogation scene between Mildred and Willoughby, after the former has assaulted a dentist who is sympathetic to the cops and was about to perform some unnecessary oral surgery. Willoughby coughs, covering Mildred's face with blood. He didn't mean to do it, Willoughby tells her, and with a degree of almost maternal love, which she doesn't seem to show to her own son (played by Lucas Hedges), Mildred consoles him.

There is a well of good in these people, even if they cannot see it within themselves or each other. It's obvious in Willoughby, who seems as frustrated with his failings to bring Mildred's daughter's killer to justice as anyone can. It's clear in Mildred, although her anger puts a dark cloud over her intentions. It's more difficult to see in Charlie and, to a greater extent, Dixon, whose temper finally gets the better of him in a terrifying scene of misdirected violence (Rockwell's performance is like a daring high-wire act, taking his character from a bumbling cop, to a seemingly unforgiveable vehicle of rage, and, ultimately, to a man who sees the error of his ways). That goodness is there, though. McDonagh wants to find it, as trying and questionable as such a search may seem.

The film is quaint enough in its setting, quirky enough in its characterizations, and broad enough in its aims to serve as a kind of parable about decency and forgiveness. It's also specific enough in its characters and their relationships to be much more. Beneath its winding plot and damaged characters, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is an empathetic view of humanity at its best, its worst, and, as is most often the case in this world, everything in between.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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