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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Woody Harrelson
Woody Harrelson
Fox Searchlight Pictures
 115 Minutes
Directed byMartin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell 
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Some actors and directors have had a symbiotic relationship over the years, each seemingly bringing out the best in the other, like John Ford and John Wayne, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, and Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Also on the list are Frances McDormand and the Coen Brothers (she’s even married to one of them), whose best collaboration, Fargo, ranks high on all-time best film lists and won Oscars for all three of them.


So, it’s probably the highest tribute one can pay Martin McDonagh, writer/director of McDormand’s latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, to say that if you didn’t know better, you would swear it was a Coen Brothers film. Not only is McDonagh not one of the Coen Brothers, but he’s not American, even though Three Billboards is a quintessentially middle-American film. That hasn’t prevented him from making perhaps the best movie of the year.


Actually, McDonagh came up with the idea for Three Billboards when he saw a series of message-bearing billboards on a rural highway, a reminder of the old Burma-Shave ads that predated the interstate highways. These particular billboards were rented by Mildred Hayes (McDormand), after her teenage daughter was raped and murdered months earlier. Since the rapist’s DNA was not in any government database and the police had no other leads, the trail had gone cold (see clip below). A frustrated Mildred decides to increase the pressure on the authorities by calling out the local sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for his failure to make an arrest.


The billboards soon attract media attention, and, while Willoughby takes a somewhat tolerant approach towards Mildred (although he does try to get her to change her mind), one of his deputies, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a mean spirited, vicious racist, reacts far more violently. Dixon idolizes Willoughby and takes out his frustrations first by beating up the realtor (Caleb Landry Jones) who rented the billboards to Mildred, and later towards Mildred herself. But when someone tries to burn down the billboards one night, Mildred literally decides to fight fire with fire.


So many movies today are exceedingly predictable, so much so that most people in the audience pretty much know what’s going to happen in the next four or five scenes. Three Billboards is never predictable, especially not the ending which flies in the face of a common Hollywood trope for one that is less dramatically satisfying (no feel-good moments here) but more faithful to what has gone on in the previous 90 minutes. Nor does Three Billboards ever descend to the level of a standard Law and Order cop procedural. Yes, an as-yet unsolved rape and murder are at the heart of the story, but the movie is only peripherally about solving the murder and more about the effect the murder has on everyone around it, from Mildred and the cops to their various loved ones and to the town itself.  


McDonagh never takes the easy way out in Three Billboards. The main characters—Mildred, Willoughby, and Dixon—aren’t two-dimensional caricatures of good and evil. They are quite complex, flawed, and, as the movie goes along, their personalities are revealed like peeling back layers of an onion. Mildred in particular is about as complex a character as I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. She makes numerous mistakes, dating back to the relationship with her daughter before the girl’s death, which she now deeply regrets. Yet, even in the present day, she has errors in judgment and makes decisions that prove cruel to those who don’t deserve such cruelty or backfire on her badly.


Dixon is also a highly complex character, not the one-dimensional, n-word spouting Neanderthal foil just waiting for his Act Three comeuppance as he would be portrayed in most films. Yes, he’s vicious and cruel, but he is also the product of a most unsavory home life with a domineering mother that he still looks after. And his racism, as the audience eventually learns, may not be deep seeded inbred as much as a matter of convenience, a way to unleash his generalized hatred of the world against a target that conveniently is rarely present in the virtually all-white town of Ebbing.  


The complexities of character in Three Billboards extend to the secondary characters, including Mildred’s abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) and her son (Lucas Hedges), who struggles to retain some normalcy in his life despite a family situation that varies between a tragedy and a circus. Director McDonagh is fortunate to have five Oscar winners or nominees plus Emmy winner Peter Dinklage to call upon, but the less heralded cast members also contribute. There isn’t a single false or artificially showy performance in the movie. The biggest loser in this film might well by Woody Harrelson, who has the misfortune of delivering three very good performances this year that will probably fall just below Oscar’s radar.


Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell have no such worries; their nominations are a lock. This is clearly McDormand’s best work since Fargo, and, regardless of whether Mildred is right or wrong, she dominates every single scene in which she appears. She is at her best playing strong determined women like Marge Gunderson in Fargo, but Mildred is probably her most complex character yet. Mildred is a woman who is unable to deal with her grief and guilt, until she finds a way to channel it via the billboards and then, from that moment on, fixates on the quest for truth as a means of personal salvation.


Sam Rockwell, on the other hand, goes against his usual on-screen persona as a goofy, likable guy, to play a bigot who seems at first to have no redeeming qualities. But the cracks in his persona soon show, not as a villain’s flaws that eventually bring him down, but as the largely hidden aspects of a more complete personality. Of all the character in the film, Dixon changes the most during its course, and Rockwell never lets the transformation appear to be a cheap copout. Further, he’s not an Ebenezar Scrooge who sees the light of day. He still has a lot of rough edges.


Three Billboards has received some critical backlash since its release for some supposedly unrealistic attitudes of some of the characters. To the contrary, Martin McDonagh has shown an understanding of character that many far more experienced writers and directors lack (this is only his third feature film). Both Dixon and Mildred find coping mechanisms; Dixon’s simply occurred earlier in time, by freely adopting the trappings of the racist as a convenient way to explain his violent bullying (his shocking outburst in the film is directed against a white person). Yes, to a certain extent, Three Billboards is unrealistic, but it reveals a lot of powerful truths about character. This is, simply put, the best film I’ve seen all year.

In this clip, Woody Harrelson explains to Frances McDormand the lack of success in his investigation.

Read other reviews of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) on IMDb