OldKingClancy posted a MOVIE REVIEW item: about 1 month ago

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Written by: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Jones, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes
Genre: Crime, Drama
Official Site:
Plot: "I'm assuming you can't say nothing defamatory and you can't say 'fuck piss or cunt'."


Ever since I blind bought In Bruges I’ve been a fan of Martin McDonagh’s style, while I haven’t had the chance to revisit his meta-commentary of Seven Psychopaths his black wit and grey morals have been present across all three of his films to date and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri might just be his strongest work to date. While it lacks the sheer comedy of In Bruges it makes up for it by paining one of the most layered character dramas of the last decade.

Seven months after her teenage daughter Angela was raped, murdered and burnt with nothing done about catching her killer, divorced mother Mildred Hayes decides to bring the case back into the public light by renting out three billboards calling out police Chief William Willoughby for not doing his job.

Things don’t go as planned as while the town sympathise with Mildred over the loss of her daughter, they don’t like the attack on Willoughby, primarily because of the open secret that he’s suffering from pancreatic cancer and having to deal with the officers on his force, worst of which being racist idiot Jason Dixon who was alleged to have tortured a black prisoner though wasn’t convicted due to lack of evidence. Intent on fighting for justice no matter what, Mildred puts on a brave face and takes the town on, no matter what.

I’m being deliberately vague because the story doesn’t go the way you think it will, McDonagh sets that up early by showing that Mildred is not the heroine of this story, nor is Willoughby the villain but is after a significant moment at the end of the first act that the whole film starts to fully embrace its ambiguous morality and go to places that you’d never expect it to go. The hunt for Angela’s killer eventually becomes second fiddle to this story of anger and how it affects everyone around it and it makes for a much deeper and more engaging storyline.

The film is bolstered by a pretty damn incredible cast, head of the pack is Francis McDormand making her play for the Oscar as Mildred Hayes, right from her first line you can tell the type of person Mildred is, she’s foul-mouthed, to the point and has little time for idiots, you enjoy watching her because you see her as the smartest person in the room and the only one actually doing something worthwhile. But that’s not what makes her such a great character, what makes her so great is that the longer you spend watching her, the more you see this behaviour isn’t born out of justice, it’s born out of hate; Mildred is driven but by hate and it’s poisoning the people around her, most notably her son. McDormand nails that no-fucks-given nature of her character and sells just how tough her armour has become since losing her daughter but it’s the moments where she softens up, either towards the memory of her daughter and the guilt over not being able to do more or towards people that she’s inadvertently hurt in her mission – a key scene with Willoughby has her switch from there’s so many layers to Mildred that she never falls directly into hero or villain status, she’s a hurt mother lashing out as an unjust world but she still human.

McDonagh extends this to the main supporting cast as well, Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby quickly shows that he’s not the bad guy Mildred thinks he is, he’s done everything he can for Angela’s case but the lack of evidence has brought him to a standstill and he can’t do much else about it. He’s obviously frustrated at Mildred’s billboards but with his cancer and his idiot fellow officers the stress is not doing him any good, and yet he still manages to find the time to be courteous to Mildred even through her tirades. Willoughby is probably the closest the film comes to a genuinely good person, he has a loving Aussie wife, two young daughters and the respect of his town born from his willingness to do the right thing, the fact that he has cancer is another of the film’s tragic ironies but Harrelson provides the film with a strong straight man role, holding the town together through his respect for everyone in it, even when they call him out for not doing his job right.

The best example of the film’s complex morality is through Sam Rockwell’s performance as Jason Dixon where - much like his turn in Seven Psychopaths - Rockwell manages to build a character equal part psychotic and sympathetic. While initially you just see a racist idiot, ignorant of everything around him and so filled with violence that he thinks nothing of beating up people just because they pissed him off, what Rockwell is able to do is inject more into the character, he’s dumb enough that you don’t fully hate him despite him being a piece of shit. It’s in the final act of the film where Rockwell is able to turn what we think about Dixon on its head, after a few key sobering moments Dixon’s arc takes a sharp turn where you end up feeling sorry for him, and yet it never feels as drastic as it sounds. It’s a strong performance and one that runs parallel to Mildred’s, giving the final moments between the two characters more weight to it.

While not as evident as the main characters, the supporting cast continue the theme of subverting expectations; the one weak point being Mildred’s son Robbie, played by Lucas Hedges, not to say that Hedges is bad but the lack of a satisfying resolution to his character makes it hard to see where he fit into the story, for the most part he was depressed over the murder of his sister and forced to see his mother’s billboards detailing exactly how she was murdered wasn’t helping him, and it is a good performance but Hedges played a much stronger depressed character in Manchester By The Sea where Robbie just felt like a device for Mildred’s arc rather than his own character.

Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie – John Hawkes channelling Uncle Teardrop again - shares his wife’s violent nature and is a rumoured wife-beater but he talk’s sense about Mildred’s futility in keeping the billboards up since Angela isn’t coming back. His 19 year old girlfriend Penelope – Samara Weaving - could’ve easily been an air-head but she appears to have a good head on her shoulders and a naive but sunny disposition despite now being involved in a family tearing at the seams. In a nice piece of juxtaposition, as much as Mildred shits on Charlie about dating a 19 year old, Willoughby’s wife Anne – Abbie Cornish – is much younger than he is but they have arguably the best relationship in the film. Billboard renter Red Welby – Caleb Landry Jones having one hell of a year – is another one of the good guys just trying to do his job and play on neutral ground but finds himself stuck in the middle of a war and hurt because of it. And ‘town midget’ James – Peter Dinklage in an extended cameo and glorious mullet – has an attraction to Mildred but after she pays him back for helping her out of trouble he sees just how damaged she really is. While they don’t play a big part in the story overall, Penelope, Red and James all factor into the theme of goodness that Willoughby brings to the table and how it can be found in the world if you’re looking for it.

Creating a movie about murder, racism and profanity and making it a comedy is no easy task but Martin McDonagh manages to do just that and balances it really well considering just how dark this movie can get. Mildred’s anger is so all encompassing that other people get angry because of it, creating this great circle of hate that threatens to rip the town apart all because of those fucking billboards. And it honest to god gets ugly at times, there’s a suicide scene which has a harsh reaction from the people closest to the victim, Dixon has a few humbling moments but they all leave him worse off and scarred because of it and for as brave a face as Mildred puts on she has to stop more than once to grieve or risk breaking down completely, her total disregard for anything the cops say has her leaning towards violence only to hurt people that are only trying to help. And that’s only the noticeable stuff, McDonagh puts in little things here and there to enhance the grief of it all, like how Dixon reads comic books showing that he understands what it means to be good but struggles to overcome his own violent nature, or how the song ‘His Master’s Voice’ is played over Dixon’s attack on Red, completely misreading what it is that Willoughby wanted him to do; this whole scene is done in one long take and presents one of the better showcases of grief in a movie filled with it.

Perhaps worst of all, the three billboards are shown to be the site of Angela’s murder and is in the direct line of sight of Mildred’s house leading to the theory that either Angela spent her last moments pleading for her mother or brother to just look out the window and see her or, since it’s said several times that nobody uses the road the billboards are on, Mildred or Robbie did look out the window only to see a burning body in the distance.

Thankfully though the comedy balances the movie out, it’s not as gut-bustlingly funny as In Bruges but it’s just as dark and just as profane, Dixon’s idiocy in the first half often leads to some incompetent humour as he doesn’t have the capacity to think on his feet or match wits with Mildred. Some of the lines dropped are hilarious as either retorts to insults or just funny as their own things, Penelope in particularly has some great dimwit moments. Even some of the darker scenes of the film have their humorous elements, Dixon listening to ABBA while everyone around him reacts to the suicide was a great moment and in a similar vein, the suicide victim leaving letters for people have the dark with of someone going out with a smile on their face.

As mentioned before, it’s how McDonagh subverts expectations that makes this film that much more interesting, I’ve already discussed how Mildred, Willoughby and Dixon all blur the lines between hero and villain but there’s more to it than that I can’t fully get into without treading on spoiler territory but there’s a lot of characters that don’t get the happy ending you think they deserve because this is not a film about what people deserve, this is life in all its chaotic and violent glory. When the ending comes around you’re no closer to getting a satisfying conclusion and it leaves off on an ambigious note, but you can tell that the characters involved have been changed by the experiences and are no longer filled with the same anger they were at the start. Sometimes life isn’t about the big changes, it’s about the little ones you make to better yourself.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri might have the oddest title for a film since The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford but it’s a suitable one for how powerful those billboards become to this town and these people. It’s a story of grief, of hate, of violence and indeed of redemption ever for those who may not deserve it, McDormand and Rockwell lead a cast of morally grey characters trying to overcome the personal flaws they attach to others and both deserving of love come Award Season and Martin McDonagh proves once again that he can blend some of the darkest drama with some of the funniest comedy and bring out the best in both.


Other reviews of this film: oscarxp25 (10/10) , ReelSchool (9/10) > Display all

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