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Why to Look Out for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


The relationship between the public and the police is one of the major things under scrutiny in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film which is ruthlessly brutal and affecting. It’s directed by Martin McDonagh whose previous films, the fantastic In Bruges, and the pretty good Seven Psychopaths, are known for combining serious, usually lethal actions, with black comedy. And while there is a darkly comic edge to this film, it’s by far his most serious project, and his most excellent.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), in an effort to raise awareness and reopen the rape-murder case of her daughter, pays for three billboards outside the town of Ebbing, Missouri that explicitly shame the law enforcement for not solving it. This is met with backlash considering the billboards specifically attack Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who in addition to being a well-liked figure in the community, is suffering from terminal cancer. The film focuses on Mildred becoming a pariah because of this, and the impact it has on the town, the police force, and herself.
Mildred Hayes is Frances McDormand’s single greatest character since Fargo. She’s fierce, determined, resilient, and fearless, as she speaks her mind authoritatively and defends herself ferociously. But at the same time she’s a grieving and frustrated mother, remorseful over her antagonistic relationship with her daughter when she was alive. McDormand is of course terrific at Mildred’s wit, but also conveys an extremely hurt person, who’s been through a lot, even before the murder. She’s a rich and compelling protagonist who you sympathize with, but she’s complex in her actions, often going to extreme measures that you can’t justify. But it makes her all the more human and interesting. And no one could have played this part like McDormand who may well win her second Oscar for it. Woody Harrelson is great too. It would have been easy to make his character a corrupt or uncaring cop, in perfect synch with the implication Mildred perpetuates with her billboards. But he’s actually a genuinely caring guy, unfairly targeted, and with a great sense of humour. McDonagh reunites with another Seven Psychopaths star, as Sam Rockwell plays Willoughby’s subordinate Officer Dixon; and Rockwell proves here why he’s one of the most underrated character actors. Though Dixon initially appears to be a comic relief idiot cop with a possibly racist past and capable of being a real scumbag, his arc is taken in some unpredictable directions, and Rockwell turns out one of his all-time greatest performances. The supporting cast is full of good actors too, as Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea delivers exceptionally as Mildred’s son, who’s also offended by the billboards; and John Hawkes is quite good as her ex-husband. There are also good turns from Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, and a surprising Peter Dinklage.
The subject matter of this movie is certainly difficult, but it’s well-handled. Because as with most of his scripts, McDonagh injects a great degree of personality into his writing. The comic moments don’t detract from the heavily serious scenes, instead they flow rather seamlessly. The dialogue is very clever and honest to character. And McDonagh has such an understanding of this that he’s willing to go to some very tough places, like in one monologue Mildred delivers to a priest for example, that’s terrifically composed yet utterly venomous. It gets across a very blunt point and the whole story is really quite pointed. This is a veritably socially conscious film in the way it examines the relationship Mildred has with the police. While the people of Ebbing generally respect their department, Mildred is more cynical and perfectly willing to call them out. Other moments highlight, for serious or comic effect, a lack of accountability; and there’s a very modern commentary underlining the film in the way it discusses and alludes to rape and sexual abuse, and how law enforcement deals with them.
Carter Burwell’s score is great, the atmosphere is really nailed, and the way the movie ultimately ends is not what you’d expect, proving much more intelligent, realistic, and evocative than what’s typically anticipated. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an outstanding film, and though it surely has a few flaws, they don’t readily present themselves. It’s a movie that forces you into the shoes of someone who’s lost so much and is fed up with feeling powerless, and it whole-heartedly earns your investment. With a brilliant screenplay by a brilliant director, an original story that’s focussed and relentless, and engaging characters portrayed by a radiant cast led by Frances McDormand at her finest, this is certainly not the last you’ll be hearing of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

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