Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Rating

Director

Martin McDonagh

Screenplay

Martin McDonagh

Length

1h 55m

Starring

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

MPAA Rating

R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references

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Review

Grief becomes rage in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a potent drama about a woman’s struggle to find solace when justice is not to be found.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh turns his sights on the American Midwest in his compelling portrait of Mildred (Frances McDormand), a frustrated mother who wants justice for her daughter as a way to alleviate her feelings of remorse and regret. With no movement from the local police, Mildred takes matters into her own hands by renting three billboards outside their fictional Missouri town that challenge the town’s sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for not doing more.

Creating complex characters is one of McDonagh’s strengths. His greatest cinematic success remains In Bruges, a fascinating black comedy that explored the recriminations of a hitman (Colin Farrell) as he wrestles with his past. Co-starring Brendan Gleeson, the film was superbly acted and successfully pulled the audience into its characters’ faults and foibles.

For Three Billboards, McDonagh enlists another group of amazingly talented actors to give depth and soul to his myriad creations. McDormand is the heart of the film, giving Mildred’s grief-stricken vengeance humanity, an embodiment of every angry, heart-sick woman who’s ever lost a child or someone they loved and felt powerless to both protect and avenge the victims.

Harrelson is patient and competence personified in the conscientious, but dying sheriff. Filled with remorse for Mildred’s suffering, but unable to give her the closure she desires, Willoughby knows that he’s done all he can, following every lead possible, but that it isn’t enough. Angry at Mildred for her public attack on him and his office while also understanding of her suffering.

The only character that doesn’t quite fit into the narrative is the racist deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) whose nonchalance and lack of concern is emblematic of the public who decry such public displays of grief and attack all those who would question the authority of the police or the quality of service they provide. He’s a well written character and Rockwell sinks his teeth into the role with great precision, but his position as a stand-in for the worst of our society does little to justify his existence in the narrative.

McDonagh seems intent on pulling inspiration from ensemble directors like Robert Altman or Joel and Ethan Coen, perhaps even a mixture of both, digging deep into his characters and infusing each with either charming quirks or despicable traits, and sometimes a bit of both. They are humane portrayals, but also caricatures of real people. You can identify readily with characters like McDormand’s and Harrelsons, but not so easily with the likes of Rockwell or Peter Dinklage, as a townsperson with simple goals and interests.

Herein lies McDonagh’s biggest problems. In attempting to link Mildred and Dixon together as the former lashes out and the latter grows up, McDonagh paves over the down-to-earth qualities his film is hoping to convey. That he makes Dixon’s character even more complex by subtly suggesting that he’s an closeted homosexual exemplifies his strength in fashioning credible characters, but not in giving them the voice they need.

Further, limiting the consequences of the actions of the characters in the film, the town seems not to care about the more outlandish of crimes being committed, McDonagh does the film a disservice. Consequences form an important part of moral and ethical development, but the film seems less concerned about making sure that moral and ethical questions are effectively answered and instead tries to create a superficially “happy” ending.

Still, the foundation of Three Billboards is a challenging one and is filled with numerous jabs at small town America in spite of the loving richness he creates within it. McDonagh seeminly respects and admires these folks, while feeling no remorse for exposing their darker natures. It’s an almost piteous envisioning of small town life. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are treated as ways of life, not antiquated notions carried down through generations that need to be quashed. It’s a film that explores a challenging subject with the kind of grounded respectfulness that have made the flawed characters of McDonagh’s other work stand out, for good and for ill.

Oscar Prospects (Listed Prior to the Oscars)

Guarantees: Actress (Frances McDormand), Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell), Original Screenplay
Probables: Picture
Potentials: Director, Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson), Original Score, Film Editing, Cinematography

Review Written

April 17, 2018

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