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