Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Set in a fictional midwestern town, in the aftermath of the brutal rape and murder of a teenage girl, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells the story of Mildred Hays (Frances McDormand), the victim’s no-nonsense mother, who takes on the local police department for their inaction in their search for the perpetrator. Mildred rents out three billboards on the outskirts of Ebbing to level her attack; sitting starkly amongst peaceful green hills and gentle blue skies, bold, black lettering on violent crimson accuses: ‘RAPED WHILE DYING.’ ‘AND STILL NO ARRESTS?’ ‘HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?’, thuss lighting the first spark of outrage in the small, tight-knit community. Soon it is engulfed in a blazing inferno of blame, vengeance and destruction. 

Sound fun? Despite the grim backstory, Three Billboards is darkly comic and thoroughly entertaining – thanks to a brilliant script littered with expletives and exceptional chemistry amongst the cast. The sparring characters exchange cutting blows, armed with a glorious arsenal of sarcasm, profanities and vitriol. With familial ease the residents of Ebbing clash and reconcile, making their relationships feel authentic.

The main characters are genuine too, comfortably occupying the grey area between the binary of right and wrong. Chief Willoughby, charismatically played by Woody Harrelson, is not the textbook incompetent villain; he is a sweet-natured family man with a good sense of humour, who weighs up issues with reasoned pragmatism. Similarly, we can find plenty of fault in the impulsive protagonist, Mildred. In between their conflict, the two interact with a familiar and touching warmth. However, this rule fails to apply to Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is disappointingly one-dimensional in this otherwise rich film. Embodying the ignorant, racist fool, he is cartoonishly stupid and an excellent comic device – the audience unanimously rallies against and laughs at him. However, his position as ‘the moron’ is dangerous, his history of abusing a black man in custody is treated more as another idiotic personality trait rather than the manifestation of one of America’s gravest institutional problems. Therefore, when McDonagh attempts to give him depth and develop his character, it feels implausible, and, as his struggle for redemption involves no introspection about his racism, it feels hollow too.

Accusations that black characters are used as props in the story are well-founded. For example, Denise (Amanda Warren), Mildred’s best friend, is given no depth, and her unjust incarceration is only included to show Officer Dixon’s cruelty. After spending days inside, her release is barely acknowledged, with just two lines of dialogue. This bizarre trivialisation illustrates the flippant way in which McDonagh deals with the issue of race – assuming that simply referencing a problem amounts to taking it on.

Finally, Mildred Hayes is a brilliantly written character; in the glorious onslaught of expletives and insults, Mildred leads the charge. Her straight-talking, foul-mouthed approach has the audience on side immediately, as she delivers abrupt, sarcastic lines with delightful bluntness. However, beneath her determined grimace, she is tender, caring and good-humoured. In a touching opening scene, as she frowns in the direction of the offending police station, she pauses to see a beetle on its back, legs flailing helplessly, and gently overturns it. McDormand delivers the funniest lines of the film, but it is her moments of raw grief and compassion that make her performance so memorable. It is refreshing to see a multifaceted and likeable female protagonist, and McDormand’s dextrous and entertaining performance plays the role perfectly. In my opinion, the Oscar for best actress is well-deserved.

I was concerned that Three Billboards would follow a formulaic structure: reckless lone-wolf takes on a corrupt establishment, and, after hardship and resistance, finally finds truth and justice. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the film doesn’t tie up neatly to a satisfying conclusion. Ultimately, it is a study of a small community, violently shaken by a dramatic incident, and the ripple effects left in its wake. The result is a raw depiction of grief and anger in all its irrational, chaotic forms. Although excessive at times, the escalation of antagonism leaves us with a poignant lesson about the futility of searching for justice in the flames of retribution.


Exposed watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri at the Showroom Cinema.





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