Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a dark comedy drama directed by Martin McDonagh and starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.
Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is grieving the loss of her daughter, who was raped and murdered seven months previously to the events of the film. As she drives home, she notices three billboards that have been out of use for some time. She pays an advertising agency to put up comments on the billboards, questioning the police for having made no arrests.
Chief Willoughby (Harrelson), having been mentioned by name on the billboards tries to reassure Mildred that the police are doing all that they can and persuade her to take the billboards down. She refuses and the police begrudgingly redouble their efforts to solve the case. Most of the town of Ebbing, however, are angry with Mildred about the billboards and she has to endure the residents’ disgust, aggression and threats to keep the investigation present in everyone’s minds.
I’ve been a fan of Martin McDonagh since his first major feature, In Bruges (2008), which, along with his follow-up, Seven Psychopaths (2012), are two of my favourite films. Therefore, I went into this movie with a certain amount of expectation.
What I found was that Three Billboards is a far more mature entry from the director. Where In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths were a series of over-the-top madcap adventures in which the humour worked in its exaggeration; Three Billboards is subtle, often touching and very human.
The film often defies your expectations, which makes it refreshing and yet despite often pulling the rug out from under you, still feels complete at the story’s climax. All of the characters are flawed in various ways, yet still likeable – you want to see how each of the main characters’ story arcs play out.
My only criticism of the film is that some of the supporting cast are a bit superfluous to the plot, but still get enough screen time to feel somewhat one-dimensional and get you wondering what their interest in the events is.
It’s no wonder that the film has received critical acclaim and performed well at the Golden Globes and McDonagh has proved yet again that his unique storytelling is captivating with enough thematic substance to excite both casual cinema-goers and hardcore film analysts alike.
Review (with spoilers!)
Here I’m going to talk about the resolution of the main character arcs and discuss how major plot points made the humour and drama work alongside each other, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, please watch it first!
Mildred is a brilliantly written protagonist – she is relatable in her anger, endearingly defiant and yet makes mistakes and you can see her sadness when she realises the implications for what she’s done.
She burns down the police station in retaliation for someone burning her billboards, assuming that it was done in revenge by the officers for the Chief’s death (more on that later). She also assumes the building to be empty and sees Officer Dixon (Rockwell) fighting his way out, saving the file on her daughter’s case.
She later admits her guilt to Dixon in a touching final scene, trying to make amends for her actions. By this point she has found out that the real culprit is her ex-husband, whom she forgives and lets be, reasoning that revenge isn’t helping her.
McDormand’s acting in these scenes is oscar-worthy; she conveys a whole series of complex emotions without speaking and by the end, you feel as though you’ve been on a journey with her.
Chief Willoughby is an affable character who, in the most tragic moment of the film, commits suicide to prevent his family from suffering whilst caring for him as he has terminal cancer.
In most films, this would be entirely depressing, but McDonagh manages to create a lot of humour and hope here in the form of Willoughby’s letters to his wife, Mildred and Dixon.
Dixon undergoes the most sensational character arc, however, as he transforms from being an angry, lazy and racists police officer to being an unlikely hero and ally of Mildred.
Rockwell’s subtle transformation of the character from the comic relief earlier in the film, to a determined individual accepting his past mistakes is one of his best performances, alongside Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009).
The film has a lot to say about forgiveness in lieu of revenge and one of its most powerful scenes and expectation-breakers is when Dixon is admitted to hospital after being badly burned in the fire and finds himself in the same ward as the billboard advertiser, who he’d earlier thrown out of a window in revenge for Willoughby’s death.
Dixon, who is heavily bandaged, reveals who he is and apologises to the advertiser, expecting him to potentially try and kill him. However, the advertiser, though distressed, pours Dixon a glass of orange juice that he’d offered him just before and lets him be.
Mildred’s colleague in her shop was undeveloped, though. She implies that she hates the cops, without explaining why and later gets arrested as the police attempt to get to Mildred to force her to take the billboards down. However, she later gets released and then doesn’t appear again. I found that when reminded that she existed, I didn’t care about her due to the lack of development.
The stranger who later becomes a suspect is also undeveloped, although here I believe it was a deliberate choice. In another expectation-breaker, the film sets up the idea that he was the killer, but it turns out that it wasn’t him and, though he may have been a rapist, he wasn’t involved in the Hayes’ case.
This ending works well, as who did it is not the point of the film and the fact that there is no resolution to the crime, that there is no tangible answer to why it happened, is a realistic notion. It also gets the characters to wind up their story arcs by accepting that there are no easy answers.
However, in the two scenes in which the stranger appears, he torments Mildred, suggesting that he might be the killer and later boasts about raping someone, while being overheard by Dixon; he is given a lot of screen time and importance, which isn’t really paid off.
For me, it would have worked better if the first of his two scenes hadn’t happened, and he was just some random stranger that Dixon overheard, which would reinforce the film’s ideas of nihilism and wouldn’t leave a desire to see his character face comeuppance.
All-in-all, this was an incredibly enjoyable movie with electric pace, sumptuous visuals, great acting, and an appropriate soundtrack that has very few flaws that the film can be, in its own spirit, entirely forgiven for.