In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) grows so frustrated with the police’s lack of progress toward solving her daughter, Angela’s, brutal murder that she buys three billboards just outside of the small town she lives in and posts a blunt message asking the chief of police, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), why no arrests have been made. The billboards create conflict not only between Mildred and Chief Willoughby, but also with Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell); Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), manager of the company that owns the billboards; and Mildred’s son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges). Mildred just wants closure and justice over her daughter’s death, but the whole town gets a meandering, sometimes violent, lesson in mercy and redemption.
I was genuinely surprised by how nuanced the characters are in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I expected a vulgar, dark comedy, but I did not expect the film to feature so many potential villains who were actually more complicated and redeemable than they first appeared. For example, a lesser version of the story would make Chief Willoughby a bumbling cop who had mishandled Angela’s case. Instead, he is a good cop and a decent man, and Angela’s case remained unsolved because there were no witnesses and no leads. Even Dixon, a character who is cartoonishly despicable for most of the film, has his moments and the potential to do good.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is dark and very funny, but it is also a bit of a saga focused on the theme that anger begets more anger. The story is peppered with acts of forgiveness and unlikely alliances as the characters try to find their way through the darkness to healing. In one of my favorite scenes, a victim of violence ends up in the same hospital room as the character who hurt him. Instead of lashing out, he responds with the kindness he initiated before he realized who his roommate was.
The small town setting works beautifully for the narrative, as it is easy to believe that the characters know each other well enough to have long-standing friendships, suspicions and anger. The film does a wonderful job of capturing the rural location in a way that feels big and beautiful, but also oppressive. The billboards stand in a sunny field on a road no one ever travels. In the day, it is charming and rustic. At night, the darkness is vast, and it is not surprising that the road was the scene of Angela’s murder.
Despite how much I enjoyed the story, the ending left something to be desired. The film raises ethical questions and then it just ends abruptly. On one hand, the ending allows the audience to continue to ponder the situation the characters find themselves in, but on the other, it looks like they just ran out of film.
Bringing the story to life are outstanding performances, particularly from Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson. The ensemble features plenty of vivid characters and Caleb Landry Jones gives a stand-out performance among them. Samara Weaving is surprisingly funny as Penolope, Mildred’s ex-husband’s very young girlfriend. As Chief Willoughby’s wife, Ann, Abbie Cornish is flat and seems miscast. Meanwhile, Sam Rockwell chews the scenery as Dixon. His energy is so much higher than the other characters that he is funny, but also often looks like he is overacting.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is memorable, thought-provoking and funny in a crass, twisted way that keeps its sweet moments from being even remotely hackneyed. It combines the best elements of black comedy, crime drama and Americana into a riveting story. I rate it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was written and directed by Martin McDonagh. It runs 1 hour 55 minutes and is rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual references.
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