TL;DR – It is a heart-breaking story of broken people trying to find hope, justice, belonging in a deeply broken world.
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
What would you do when your daughter is brutally murdered and the police either can’t or won’t find her killer? This is the question Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri askes. What do you do when the power structures that are there to protect you, instead fail over and over again? Add to this living in a small town where everyone knows everyone, and people are not ready to question the power structure that they live in. All of this creates a powerful world to tell a story of broken people trying to do their best in a broken system and it was fascinating to watch. So today we are going to look at the acting and set the scene, though towards the end of the review we are going to talk about the film’s ending, so be prepared for some spoilers incoming. Also before I start, I’m not a big fan of warnings really, that’s what movie ratings are for, but I will say if you are someone who struggles with their physiological health, then you may want to read up on some of the content of this film before you go see it. This is because there are some things that are depicted quite graphically, and if you are concerned please talk to a trained professional.
Just a quick aside, so I am going to be honest from the start here, due to a severe storm that hit all of Southeast Queensland where I live, I missed the first couple of minutes of Three Billboards. So while I don’t think it changes how I feel about the film in anyway, I did want to be open that there could have been a narrative thread in that missed that may have changed how I viewed the movie for better or worse.
So to set the scene, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a single mother trying to raise her kids Angela (Kathryn Newton) and Robbie (Lucas Hedges) after her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) left her. Life is not perfect but she is trying her best in difficult circumstances, however, one day her daughter is brutally raped and then murdered on her way home, and Mildred’s world changed forever. After seven long months and no progress from the police investigation run by Officer Jason Dixson (Sam Rockwell) a police officer with severe anger issues working under Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) who the whole town know is dying from cancer, Mildred decides to take matters into her own hands. There are three billboards near her house outside of Ebbing, Missouri so she rents them from Red (Caleb Landry Jones) and puts up three messages for the town “Raped while dying“, “And still no arrests?“, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?“. As setups go, this is as brutal as you can expect this to be, and I want to highlight this, because some of the ads I have been seeing for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri portray the film as a comedy. To be fair does it have some comedic elements, sure, but is it a comedy, oh hell no, indeed even the comedic moments are steeped in tragedy.
So let’s dive into what might be the strongest part of the film and that is the characters and the performances that embody them and it is here that we might have some [SPOILERS] coming along. The interplay between Frances McDormand & Woody Harrelson is the real highlight of the film as both of them are giving everything they have to their roles. There is one scene that shows this wonderfully, when Mildred is brought into the police station after a slight dentist incident. The first thing Willoughby does is send Dixson out of the room and positions himself above Mildred clearly showing the power difference. All Mildred can do is lob conversations grenades at Willoughby, and while this agitates him it does not shift the dynamic in the room. Then in a moment that surprised both of them Willoughby accidentally coughs up blood all over Mildred, and in an instant, the power in the room shifted, but so did the relationship between the two. It went from an antagonistic dance of words to a moment of tenderness, embarrassment, and concern all in one moment. The only way you can pull a scene like this off and have it read as sincere is if the script is amazing, the direction is really good, and the cast commits 100%. There has been a lot of talk of Frances McDormand winning the Oscar for this performance, and I can completely see where they are coming from because it is simply amazing.
However, for me, while there are these amazing scenes and character moments all throughout the film, however for me where the film does not work as well is interconnecting all these scenes together as a whole. So you have these subplots like systemic racial prejudice by the police that don’t really get explored and only pop up when the story needs them to be there. The film also has a number of events that drastically jerk the film in a new direction and while some of these worked, others didn’t quite work for me. As well as this, the film overuses the bait and switch story mechanic a few more times than it should have. Which leads us to the ending, so of course [MAJOR SPOILERS] incoming. So after getting fired from the police force, then getting an uplifting speech by Willoughby, but then also getting severely burnt, Dixson decides to finally apply himself to the case at hand. While doing this he overhears a traveller mention what sounds like a rape, so he confronts the guy and manages to get his number plate and a DNA sample, before he gets stomped into the ground. However, while he had an alibi for the night Angela was killed, Dixson is clear that this guy raped someone and got away with it. So he and Mildred decide to go “visit” the gentlemen and avenge the rape. The film ends with them in the car decided that neither of them was sure if they could kill him, but that they would make up their mind when they got there … and cut to black. Now I know this was the perfect ending for some, but for me, it felt that the film went either 10 minutes too long, or 10 minutes not long enough. On the one hand, the lack of closure hit many of the themes throughout the film but also given how brutal the film is this last act of indecision left me walking out of the cinema’s feeling hollow, which to be honest may have been the intent.
So in the end, do we recommend Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri … maybe. Look there is no doubt that you may want to see it for the performances of Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson alone, and yes I can support that. But you need to be prepared for this to be a much darker film than any of the trailers make it out to be, and that in a story about systemic power differences and that broken people living in a broken world, well … it might not actually offer any conclusions to any of those questions and you need to be ok with that.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by – Martin McDonagh
Written by – Martin McDonagh
Music by – Carter Burwell
Cinematography by – Ben Davis
Edited by – Jon Gregory
Starring – Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Kathryn Newton, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Darrell Britt-Gibson & Željko Ivanek
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: 12; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R