“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Movie Review


     In a world of sequels, reboots, and the reimagining of previously established work, a film which plays as incomparable to others and features attributes that can only be described as original, should be viewed as a true gem indeed.  That’s the feeling you will have after experiencing writer / director Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, a film that immerses the viewer in a world that seems as far away and off the beaten path as the Coen’s “Fargo” once did some 20 years ago, and likely not by coincidence features the very same star top lining an outstanding cast.  Frances McDormand won a Best Actress Oscar in 1997 for her work in the aforementioned “Fargo”, having brought to the screen an uncommon presence those of us from either coast were likely unfamiliar with.  Here, she portrays a tough as nails mother in a small town populated by a never ending cast of oddball characters.  Her mouth may very well send sailors running in the other direction, and her look might remind you of Charlize Theron’s get up in “Monster”, but it becomes clear early, she is doing things for the right reasons, even if her approach may be unconventional.

     The town of Ebbing may be fictional, but the themes the story deals with are in many cases ripped directly from today’s headlines.  Mildred (McDormand) recently lost her teenage daughter when she became the victim of a brutal rape and murder at the hands of a yet to be caught killer.  The town itself is overseen by a a police force that in comparison would make the Keystone Cops seem competent and professional.  At the top, you have Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a supervisor who tends to see the best in his people, while ignoring their glaring deficiencies.  His early career was obviously spent policing during a time when poor discretion and allowing racial bias when dealing with minorities was not just commonplace, but the way things were done, particularly in the still largely segregated Midwest.  And though Willoughby and the deputies under him still banter amongst themselves about “beating minorities”, the story isn’t about that per say, but McDonagh ensures you always know it’s there so as to add an additional layer of doubt each time the police are on screen.

     Seven months have now passed since Mildred’s daughter was killed and there are still no leads in the case.  Given her personality, it’s not surprising she is inclined to take matters into her own hands.  Using money from the sale of her now ex-husband’s property, she enlists the help of a local ad company to put up three billboards that clearly call out the small town’s police department and their ineffectiveness.  This, of course, is instantly covered as a major local news story by the media and suddenly Chief Willoughby finds himself directly in the cross heirs of public opinion, particularly when it comes to his department’s inability to solve the case.  The firestorm that ensues puts a microscope directly on the Officer charged with investigating the case, a white racist named Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who isn't qualified to write parking tickets, let alone investigate a murder.

     While it would have been easy to solely focus on the mounting pressure to solve the murder, McDonagh spends a great deal of time populating the story with characters who have a number of other issues they are navigating while still trying to make some sort of living amongst the chaos this town is likely not used to experiencing.  And McDonagh simply nails it with several of the background characters who are all given important moments in the film that have significant impact on where things eventually end up.  As Red Welby, the manager of the town’s ad company, Caleb Landry Jones delivers yet another ultra creepy performance, flawlessly channeling that nails on a chalkboard delivery Eddie Redmayne often achieves for a second time this year after breaking out in “American Made”.  Lucas Hedges, seen last year in the Academy Award winning “Manchester by the Sea”, shines as Mildred’s son who is dealing with the loss of his sister, as well as the fact his father left the family for a 19 year old dingbat, in his own way.  Even Peter Dinklage manages to crash the party as a potential love interest for Mildred who has lived a life of ridicule known as the town midget.

     Harrelson’s Willoughby is that conflicted character who probably wanted to spend the last few years of his career working in a stress free small town where not much happens.  We see a lot of him with his wife and kids, finding they too are not immune to a family crisis, which makes dealing with the attention that comes from Mildred’s billboards and the murder case itself much more difficult than anyone would have thought.  But this film belongs to McDormand and Rockwell.  Two adversaries technically on the same side, with one handling the situation based on the emotions that come from tragic loss and the other attempting to maintain credibility when it seems every decision he makes is a crucial misstep based mostly on stupidity.  The third act is particularly gratifying since McDonagh teases us with some sort of finality, only to twist the proceedings in a completely different direction.  “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” can be funny at times, but never once does it give in to the often used tropes of countless crime dramas by giving the audience what they think they want.  Instead, McDonagh keeps you guessing by continually introducing timely and well developed characters into the mix, such as Clarke Peters from “The Wire”, sending what you may have been thinking back into the land of unpredictability.  

     Clearly, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is one of the best films of the year, managing to infuse the oft explored genre with both the main and supporting characters providing plenty of noteworthy moments throughout.  The writing is spot on and the direction is certainly awards worthy.  And McDormand has to be considered at this point as the frontrunner to receive her second Best Actress Oscar, as her work in the film has not only created another memorable character like her Chief Marge Gunderson, but also one who is multi layered with a hard edged exterior covering for a grieving mom who has lost everything that was important to her.  GRADE: A