Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
By Matthew Huntley
December 7, 2017

Sam Rockwell being all Sam Rockwell-y.

It's been seven months since Mildred Hayes' daughter was raped and burned to death, and one day, while driving down a remote country road just outside Ebbing, Missouri, she gets an idea: use the three billboards on this quiet, secluded route, which haven't been rented since 1986, to call out the Ebbing police department and ask why they aren't doing their jobs, because her daughter's killer still roams free. Mildred (Frances McDormand) gets the ball rolling almost immediately when she storms into the Ebbing Advertising office, with $5,000 in hand, and emphatically tells the young pipsqueak manager, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), she wants to buy time on the billboards and here's what they should read: “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests”; and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”.

Of course, Mildred's little stunt cause an uproar with the police department and the other locals who support them. But in a town like Ebbing, there isn't much to lose, especially for a woman like Mildred, who's already lost so much. She's a bitter divorcee and a single mom to Robbie (Lucas Hedges); works a dead-end job at the local gift shop; and lives with the added humiliation of knowing her abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) is now dating a 19-year-old. Her grief for her daughter has morphed into anger and resentment, and she wants justice already, or at least a better pursuit and investigation toward it. In a town where she thinks the police officers have nothing better to do than harass black people or prop their feet up on their desks, she thinks it's high time they get their priorities in order.

Two of the officers Mildred specifically targets are Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his second-in-command, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the former because he's the head of the department and should be a more capable leader, and the latter because he's a known drunk and racist. Willoughby, a family man and respected member of the community, tells her there was no DNA evidence to make an arrest for her daughter's rape and murder, and pleads with Mildred to take the posters down. But it goes to show just how relentless Mildred is when she pays Willoughby no attention and instead suggests he make a database cataloguing the DNA of every male over the age of eight living in Ebbing (despite the civil rights violation) and start looking for matches. Clearly, Mildred has thought this through, and she's not about to back down.

The slow-witted, mamma's boy Dixon, meanwhile, thinks the police have the authority to take the posters taken down themselves since it's defamation of character, but one of the desk sergeants (Zeljko Ivanek) points out, “It's not defamation because she's asking a question.” Whether Mildred's question finds an answer, leads to an arrest, or just causes her more grief remains to be seen, but it certainly shakes up the town.

All this sets the stage for Martin McDonagh's peculiar and offbeat “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which is technically a drama but also has moderate doses of comedy and violence. This is the type of off-kilter story McDonagh (“In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths”) is used to telling, and his earlier works proved the filmmaker's varying tones could make for stirring and rousing cinema, but with “Three Billboards,” he seems to have diluted his ambitions somewhat because the film often succumbs to incredulous contrivances just to get a rise out of us. As attention-holding as it is, thanks mostly to the strong performances, there's something off, perhaps even fraudulent, about the way the story plays out, and some of the events within McDonagh's screenplay are so far out there and unbelievable, the film as a whole isn't able to render the harrowing emotional or intellectual impact it wants.

I think one of the issues is that we're never quite sure whether we're supposed to take the film as reality or as some kind of fantasy in which Mildred is the underdog-turned-hero. Some scenes, for instance, are raw, serious, and embody deep truth and humanity, as when Mildred becomes sort of a mother figure to Willoughby after he reveals a secret he thinks no one else in town knows about, or when Willoughby makes a major life decision that subsequently influences the behavior and compassion of others.

Most scenes, however, only start out as if they will have something powerful to convey before descending into such brazen incredulity that we can't help but feel they're going too far and the movie is all too willing to compromise its own reality just to push the audience's buttons. For starters, I didn't buy the whole dentist office fight scene, which seems better suited for a horror film than a human drama. Or ta potential domestic abuse scene between Mildred, her ex-husband and Robbie, which ends up feeling more awkward than effective—one minute, things are violent; the next, everything is okay and nobody is talking about what just happened. And then there's an entire arson scene that comes off as loud and over-the-top, not only with regards to the action, but also the aftermath when James (Peter Dinklage), the “town midget,” as he is known, saves the would-be victim, who just happened to insult James earlier in the film. And then for the new sheriff (Clarke Peters) to believe James' story after the fact seemed kind of ridiculous.

Another flaw is the way young women are portrayed in the film. They're painted as either ditzes or bitches with no room or opportunities for them to prove otherwise. As Mildred's ex-husband's 19-year-old girlfriend, I doubt Samara Weaving is as clueless as the screenplay makes her character out to be. Would she really not know the difference between polo and polio? The same goes for Kerry Condon as the office assistant in the advertising office and Kathryn Newton as Mildred's daughter, who we see in a flashback. The only woman in the film with any kind of depth is Mildred, and perhaps the others were given less weight and dimension to make Mildred stand out that much more, but this strategy draws negative attention to their characters.

Unfortunately, “Three Billboards”' fallacies get the better of it and they're what we remember most when leaving the theater, which is a shame because the film's acting and energy are so good. Each performer is on the top of his and her game here, displaying conviction, enthusiasm and presence in every scene. McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell have good chemistry with one another and are perfectly suited to their roles, always in control and never overreaching.

The same cannot be said of the screenplay, the events of which are just too convenient and leave us in a state of disbelief and disappointment. I'm all for the mixing of genres (why can't a tragic story about rape and murder also have darkly comic undertones?), but the various genres mixed into “Three Billboards” can't quite find a way to co-exist in a believable way so that we buy what the movie is trying to sell. McDonagh is no doubt a gifted filmmaker and I'm confident he'll return to a higher form of storytelling, the kind that seeks to arouse us with truth instead of play us with pretense.