- Movie Rating -

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017)

| December 5, 2017

It is disturbing how inherent violence is in the human collective.  It is a never-ending cycle that goes round and round and will continue to do so as long as humans stand on two legs and are able to chart the course of their own destiny.  The It is a hard fact that the movies often overlook in favor of a satisfying third act.

Martin McDonah’s oddly titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri thankfully avoids that trap. Here is a movie that forces us into the cold water reality that anger and violence often does not have a punctuation mark.  Hollywood movies have lulled us into the false reality that acts of aggression are met with righteousness and vengeance, a third act that irons everything smooth and puts the scales back on balance.  The world is a landscape of randomness, of cruelty and hatred for which there is no third act.  Violence begets violence, and that is the way of things.

This fact lies dead at the center of Three Billboards, a strange meditation on the nature of violence and the people caught in the middle of it.  The fury here is begot by Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced mother whose heart is broken beyond repair.  Some time ago her daughter Angela was murdered under those billboards and since then her death has become a cold case in the hands of a local police department that appears to be dragging its feet.  In an aggressive effort to goose the case in the media, Mildred rents out three billboards situated on barely-traveled road at the edge of town that, in three-foot letters, question the police chief as to why there have been no arrests.

Mildred is angry, and she has every right to be.  The police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his ineffective staff seem so uninterested in the case or in any actual police work that we understand her quiet fury.  Her public protest however gets their attention as it does with the local media and this sparks a massive chain of events, bringing old secrets into the open but never quite leading where you might imagine.

That’s a very bare bones description of this story.  Where it leads would take me at least 5,000 more words to even begin to describe.  A lesser film would have the investigation into Angela’s death at its heart, but McDonah is smarter than that.  There are levels to be explored here brought about through cause and effect sprung from Mildred’s billboards.  They put pressure on Willoughby which angers his fellow officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) which causes a shockingly violent act to be visited on Red, the kid who rented out the signs to Mildred, and on and on and on.  One of the joys is seeing how each event branches off into another level of character development.  How exactly this leads to Mildred’s disastrous date with an insecure car salesman (Peter Dinklage) is kind of amazing; and what happens on that date I wouldn’t spoil by saying one single word.  Nor could I.

In fact, this movie is so tricky that its central figure isn’t always Mildred.  Once the billboards make the news, for a while, it becomes Dixon’s story.  Rockwell is a revelation here.  He’s always been a welcomed presence in the movies and generally crosses the line between playing nice guys and straight up villains.  His character here seems like a more low-key version of Will Bill in The Green Mile.  He’s an insecure case of arrested development, an ignorant man-child who lives with his mom and satisfies himself among the boy’s club down at the police station.  But events twist his destiny and the character is allowed a major arc.  In the fallout from an aggravated assault he lands in the path of Mildred that almost seems cosmic.  From that springs a maturation of his character that I found fascinating.  He has a scene late in the film when he overhears a vital conversation, and what he does should earn him an Oscar nomination.

So too should Frances McDormand who gives her best performance since Fargo.  She can do more with a withering stare than just about anyone that I know.  She’s a grieving mother but that doesn’t mean that she spends her time in withering crying jags or weepy Lifetime Movie monologues.  Inside of her beats the heart of a warrior and uses it to full effect wading through a sea of toxic masculinity to get answers to her daughter’s murder.  Her insides have been torn to shreds by loss and the subsequent indifference from anyone to help her, and we see something boiling inside of her.  McDormand has a way with a curled lip and a weary stare that speaks louder than dialogue.

I have spoken here about the larger details, about the overtones, but I have avoided description of the smaller things.  There is a world of character detail here.  Rockwell and McDormand are perfect here but so is the entire cast which includes Woody Harrelson, Selah Atwood, Lucas Hedges, Clark Peters, Zeljko Ivanek, Sandy Martin, John Hawkes and Abbie Cornish, many are faces that you’ve seen before.  Each has a character to play, but no one just plays a plot function.  There’s life under the skin, and you sense that every character here could have a movie of their own.

Director Martin McDonah, who also made the ultra-violent In Bruge and Seven Psychopaths has fashioned another masterwork, the kind of movie that makes you excited for Oscar season, when the great, challenging work starts to override Hollywood’s tentpole nonsense.  This is the kind of film that I beg for all year long.  After all the junk, this is the kind of movie that keeps me going.  Here is a meditation of life, on violence, on destiny, on responsibility, on truths; on consequences and the unexpected path that leads one thing into another.  It ends on a note so vague but so perfect that I wanted to applaud it.  This is one of the best films of the year.


About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2017) View IMDB Filed in: Drama