Film Review: ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’

Far away from the frozen, otherworldly streets of ‘In Bruges,’ Ebbing, Missouri burns in Martin McDonagh’s vastly different but equally potent exploration of morality and anger.

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ depicts the ramifications of the titular billboards, which Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) uses to challenge revered police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) over the unsolved murder of her daughter.

But this isn’t the inspiring story of a noble mother overcoming a corrupt, incapable police force and finding her daughter’s killer. McDonagh portrays the situation and the characters as infinitely more complicated then that. Well, most of them.

We admire Hayes, for example, because she’s relentless and uncompromising, though her moxie doesn’t justify her actions, and while she’s a dedicated mother, she’s not exactly a responsible one. On the other hand, Willoughby, who would be the villain in a lesser film, charms us and makes us laugh. Despite his Woody Harrelson-isms, however, he doesn’t hold his officers accountable for their actions, which brings us to Dixon.

In a film packed with good performances, Sam Rockwell makes his bid for best supporting actor with officer Dixon, a dim-witted, racist momma’s boy whose rage fans the flames between Hayes and the local authorities. And in what is possibly the greatest casting decision of all time, Sandy Martin (Mac’s mom on ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’) plays his mother. In a way, Dixon serves as a microcosm of the film; his sense of humor almost makes you forget the violence it’s derived from.

Indeed if you’re easily offended or a bit squeamish, this probably isn’t the right film for you.

Like in ‘In Bruges,’ writer-director McDonagh masterfully balances comedy and intensity in the film—except for one scene. When her ex-husband, an ex-cop, confronts Hayes about the billboards, a quip, albeit a good one, arrives with Marvel-esque timing, dissolving whatever tension had built up in what was a fairly melodramatic moment anyway. This scene stands out in an otherwise airtight screenplay.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is its unconventional story structure. Two characters show up after the halfway point. It is not, like so many movies, about “a guy who has to do a thing.” This makes it hard to predict what happens next, and while the film isn’t a twisty-turny mystery, it’s refreshing and exciting to be surprised by what happens.

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‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’ hits theaters November 10th

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