Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Review


Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand and two of the titular three billboards.
Image: Fox Searchlight

A woman walks into an advertiser’s office and rents three billboards. What follows is a tale of anger, recrimination, and fire. Phew…that sure escalated quickly!

 

Unsurprisingly, given the Oscar nominations for its three main stars, it is performances that stay with you upon leaving the cinema after watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (I think we’ll all be grateful if I shorten this to Three Billboards from now on). Frances McDormand will always be the best thing in whatever film she appears in. This was especially confirmed when she somehow came out of Transformers: Dark of the Moon with her dignity intact. No mean feat when you consider that the next best actor in that film was the tennis ball on a stick that played Optimus Prime’s eyeline for the actors on set. In Three Billboards she plays Mildred Hayes, a mother coming to terms, or not depending on your sympathies for her chosen actions, with the death of her teenage daughter seven months ago. Feeling that the police have stonewalled her, she rents three empty billboards on a deserted piece of road near her house and emblazes them with the messages “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “STILL NO ARRESTS?”, and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”  This act of defiance inevitably draws the ire of the local police force and it sends her on a one-woman search for justice that will steamroll anyone who gets in her way.

Woody Harrelson plays the aforementioned Sheriff Willoughby from the billboards, trying to keep a lid on Mildred’s frustrations and other accusations of racial antagonism amongst his deputies. His performance is relatively low-key as a good man wearily defending their actions whilst coming to terms with his terminal cancer diagnosis. It’s a solid performance if you can move beyond the feeling that it’s just seems like Woody Harrelson has taken a break from acting and decided to spend a few years as Sheriff in a small town in Missouri. I can’t help feeling that his Oscar nomination for this role is somewhat undeserved in comparison with other performances, and would be better going to someone else instead.

Woody Harrelson (Sheriff Willoughby) and Sam Rockwell (Dixon)
Image: Fox Searchlight

Sam Rockwell feels more deserving of his Oscar nomination as he is given the more challenging role of playing, Dixon, the intelligently-stunted, easily-manipulated, easy-to-anger cop with a history of racial abuse. Rockwell’s always been a versatile actor whose face can display a wealth of conflicted emotions with little need for dialogue. Rockwell’s performance imbues Dixon as a conflicted character aware of how wrong his actions are only after his lack of intelligence, anger and manipulation by his mother has taken him over the edge. He’s a massive dick with a badge (when he can find it) who encapsulates the reality of small town America. Criticisms of this film have suggested that it doesn’t do anything to address the racist behaviour of Dixon, and that his subsequent redemptive arc somewhat absolves him of his awful behaviour. This opinion offers a fairly generous appraisal of the character’s outcome and his supposed redemption. By the end of the film he’s lost his job, been mildly disfigured, and receives a good shoeing when he does try to do the right thing. The author of this criticism suggests that this film does nothing to combat or even address the racist nature of Dixon, especially when it’s compared to the excellent Get Out, but I would contend that to try and use this film to account for all of Dixon’s shortcomings, and for all of the racist cops that undoubtedly inhabit much of America, would only cheapen the overall sum of this film. Dixon is not a hero at the end of the film. He’s someone who has acted humanly for the first time in his life and we never truly find out if this is just the beginning of a realisation within him, or a pit stop along the way to returning to his past behaviour.

Frances McDormand (Mildred)
Image: Fox Searchlight

This film ultimately is a study of aggressive determination in the face of coming to terms with traumatic events. If we return to the stand-out performance of McDormand’s Mildred, it is her outright refusal to surrender to appeals to remove the billboard messages from her son, ex-husband, Sheriff Willoughby, and the subsequent events that transpire throughout the film that complicates her own arc. Her no bullshit persona is driven by a channelled anger, frustration and sense of righteousness that inevitably tramples over all who stand her way. It’s easy to applaud this approach when she is launches into her brilliant speech of complicity to a priest who has come to ask her to remove said billboards, but it’s harder to rationalise it in her actions once the billboards are inevitably burnt down by an initially unknown assailant. The walls that she builds around herself in order to face the threats that arise in response to her actions inevitably hinder genuine attempts by others to help her move on. This is best observed in her obliviousness to the motivations behind the actions of local car dealer James (played by Peter Dinklage) who merely wants be closer to her.

Mildred’s actions throughout the film display an instinctual rush to defend and retaliate against perceived slights and are similar to that seen in Dixon’s response to his circumstances, although there is an obvious need to stress that her responses feel more justified and less repugnant than his. It is perhaps unsurprising that Mildred and Dixon gain a form of comfort in each other through consideration of their actions in response to Sheriff Willoughby’s final attempts to appeal to their positive elements despite their obvious flaws. It is an awkward coming to together in the end in which neither individual can legitimately feel comfortable with their actions, but hints that an element of relief may come from their mutual and honest consideration of their obvious flaws in these events.

It is this ambiguity and the ability to find the humour in the greys that inevitably happen in real life situations that seems suitably distinctive of Martin McDonagh. Although Three Billboards don’t quite reach the heights of In Bruges, it is still an excellent exploration of grief, anger and the aforementioned, if complicated, redemption. His screenplay offers a great cast some fantastic moments of personal reflection and opportunities to shine through some darkly humorous moments that, whilst awkward to watch, can’t help make you chuckle throughout. The heavy subject matter is never shied away from and is assisted by the welcome punctuation of sudden outbursts from characters that inevitably draw most of the laugh out loud moments. Amongst this assured film there inevitably are some moments that feel like missteps, most notably in the use of flashback interactions that show Mildred’s final moments with her daughter. Whilst not wholly terrible, these moments serve to highlight how her daughter’s role in this story is given more weight through her obvious absence rather than the moments she is portrayed on screen.

(From L-R) Actress Frances McDormand, actor Peter Dinklage and director/writer Martin McDonagh on the set of THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.
Photo by Merrick Morton. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox

Much like the film itself, the direction feels fairly solid and unspectacular on the whole. However, you get the sense that McDonagh’s best work is found helping a talented cast inhabit their characters with a realism that is often missed in other writers and directors. He must be applauded for bringing them a script that allows them to explore the barely hidden grief of these circumstances they inhabit without falling into the trap of going for the easy option that comes about in more shallow films.

 

So…does it make it on to The Rotation?

Probably not. I found myself chuckling along nervously at many moments in the cinema, and I would recommend people see this film for Rockwell and McDormand’s performance. I’d still think twice before putting Three Billboards in The Rotation due in part to its difficult exploration of grief. Dark humour is a difficult thing to find truly enjoyable and, as good as the performances are, I would prefer to not inhabit these moments on a repeated basis. There’s a time and a place for this film, but I’m not convinced that it involves being repeated over and over again.


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