Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017.
Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh.
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton, Kerry Condon, Amanda Warren, Zeljko Ivanek, Clarke Peters, and Sandy Martin.
In this darkly comic drama, a mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder, when they fail to catch the culprit.
Mark Twain once wrote that “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured”, which is true and a lesson the residents of the titular town of Ebbing, Missouri will come to realize. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t like the typical murder mystery where once a case is forced back into the eyes of the public and law enforcement, overlooked clues from previous investigations began to surface as everyone begins muttering to each other “how did we miss this” or such nonsense. Then again, anyone expecting routine procedure in a Martin McDonagh film (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) isn’t familiar with his madcap tonal structures that often flip-flops between gruesomely violent shenanigans and outrageous black comedy, sometimes masterfully utilizing both in the same scene.
At the center of all this simmering rage is Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother that, nine months removed from the horrific night, has not made peace with the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. More specifically, she’s absolutely enraged that the team of police led by Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson surprisingly mellowed out but still with his distinct southern drawl) have no answers or even a suspect, prompting the bullheaded mother to purchase three empty advertising billboards on a road not often traveled that hauntingly read (especially when strikingly captured all in one shot) “Raped while dying, and still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?”.
Although Mildred cracks jokes to the police force assuming they’re too busy “out torturing black people” to do anything about it (however, make no mistake, a few members of the staff are absolutely stuck in some regressive ways of thinking), there truly isn’t any evidence to go on, and Chief Willoughby is a respectable Sheriff with no dirty spots on his reputation. If anything, it’s more of a challenge and the first move in a darkly comedic game of chess between Mildred Hayes and the officers of Ebbing, Missouri.
Furthermore, while just about everyone purchasing a ticket to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is doing so to see every subsequent action in Mildred’s playbook, this isn’t a one-dimensional performance by Frances McDormand using only nonstop verbal insults (sometimes even physical insults, kicking a few instigating teenagers in the groin). Anger is her defense mechanism for dealing with these demons, and during scenes of aloneness and isolation the mask comes off displaying her true vulnerability, as she fights back mountains of tears and expresses raw pain with no words. Granted, from the very few flashbacks present in the film we get the sense that she has always been a hardened and tough individual with a rock solid spine and mouth like a missile launcher, there’s an overarching theme that while her antics are humorous (and they most definitely will have audiences laughing their asses off), this is a blemish on her personality. Mildred Hayes is a multilayered character that in tandem with exceptional acting, well, it makes for a career-defining show (slightly better than her Oscar-winning performance in Fargo) from Frances McDormand.
This is far from just Mildred’s story, however, as the script explores multiple flawed characters, some that could also use an anger management class or two. Coming into this film and even judging from scenes early on, one might get the impression that Sam Rockwell’s dimwitted, openly racist, childish police officer would serve solely as a joke machine. This same sentiment of assumedly existing primarily for comedy goes for Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage, except both of these characters also go on a journey that not only teaches Mildred, but one that also betters themselves mentally and spiritually. The ending itself will no doubt frustrate mainstream moviegoers that expect absolute closure, but who cares, what’s here is poetically beautiful.
Subverting expectations is another strong point of Martin McDonagh’s script if it wasn’t clear already. The film is never quite what you expect to be, and even when you think it’s going one way it will swiftly veer in another direction. That’s part of the screwball nature from McDonagh; he isn’t afraid to kill off major characters early on if it’s going to service the overall narrative in a meaningful way or take the gallows humor to some uncomfortable places such as domestic violence. Truthfully, there is one scene in particular between Mildred and her physically abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) that is a tonal misfire, but even his character is somehow not completely detestable and is able to help steer Mildred on a path of healing.
There’s also a healthy amount of bloody violence from a good number of beatdowns prominent throughout the film; it operates within so many different genres at once, and part of what makes Martin McDonagh such a universally revered playwright and filmmaker is his ability to do so. As usual, his work is once again a mixture of Tarantino and Coen brother style (which especially fits considering Frances McDormand is Joel Coen’s wife and has starred in many of their works), but also has its own lyrical voice. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Martin McDonagh’s most scorching work to date; it’s both immensely entertaining, engaging, savagely brutal, stingingly written with ludicrous dialogue and biting social relevancy, and layered gracefully with musings on anger.
Very rarely does a film do this, but as it ended I was completely dumbfounded that nearly 2 hours had passed, it’s that compelling. Admittedly, there are still a few more promising candidates for me to check out, but it will take nothing short of a masterpiece to dethrone this as my pick for the Best Picture Oscar, with the same going for Frances McDormand in the Best Actress category. Throw in some victories for Martin McDonagh’s superb direction and writing, and even a Supporting Actor nomination for Sam Rockwell. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an unstoppable force anchored by McDormand’s ferocious justice seeking mother. Hell hath no fury like Frances McDormand scorned; put that on your Good Morning Missouri broadcast, bitch!
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com