‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing’ is rich with character, violence, and deep meaning

 By Douglas Davidson

November 25, 2017

Writer/director Marin McDonagh is no stranger to tackling difficult or challenging material. His first feature, In Bruges, centered on a hitman having an existential crisis, while his second, Seven Psychopaths, focused on a screenwriter sucked into a world of gangsters and psychotic killers. Despite their violent concepts, both films surprisingly focus on introspective examination to move their stories forward, focusing more on how violence affects the characters than how the characters create violence.

In many ways, McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri continues this tradition while also being the most violent yet. Centered on three grief-stricken individuals who are forced to face their own culpability for their lives, Three Billboards, challenges not only the characters and their level of responsibility, but also the audience and their assumptions. What results is a tragedy-filled comedy whose parts combine to create the best film I’ve seen all year.

Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby and Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Seven months have passed without a single update from the police about the murder of Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) daughter. Frustrated and angry, Mildred rents three billboards along a road leading to town with a message directed at the esteemed Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his perceived inaction. Though the signs do succeed in getting the Ebbing police to get back to work on the cold case, Mildred’s billboards also put her in the cross-hairs of anyone who knows Willoughby. In the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, that means everyone: her family, the citizens of Ebbing, and the police including Willoughby’s hot-heated second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who decides to involve himself in the perceived slight against his boss. As these unyielding forces converge, it becomes clear that this is about more than justice.

The premise of Three Billboards opens simple enough. A mother, angry at the lack of justice for her daughter, takes a public, completely legal swing at the police to incite action. It’s a clear, straight-forward narrative that immediately places the audience on Mildred’s side. In their introductions, each character appears like the icon you expect: the devoted mother, the racist deputy, the lazy Chief. However, once the billboards go up, it slowly becomes evident that no one is innocent, no one is pure, and no one is who they appear. Little by little, McDonagh reveals more and more about each of these three, making their internal struggles unmistakable and their ethical positions less and less absolute.

Like his other films, McDonagh pulls from a deep well of talent, some of which (like Rockwell, Harrelson, and a slew of supporting roles) we’ve seen in his earlier films. Unlike most large ensemble casts where many are wasted talents in small, unimportant roles, McDonagh wastes zero real estate. Though not every role is essential to the larger undercurrent theme, they are all significant players in the small town of Ebbing. Each supporting character – and there are many – delivers a strong performance that contributes to the bed-rock for the main three: Harrelson, Rockwell, and McDormand.

Sam Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon and Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Harrelson got to let loose and have fun in Seven Psychopaths, but in Three Billboards he’s tasked with a smaller, quieter character; man who recognizes and is frustrated by the limitations of humanity. Initially, Rockwell’s Dixon is presented as the stereotypical Southern good ole’ boy cop filled with hate and quick to outbursts of violence. Rockwell, however, through sheer will – and with the assistance of clever writing – successfully makes Dixon a sympathetic character. Then there’s McDormand – just give her the Oscar now. Her performance as Mildred is absolutely mesmerizing no matter how furious her movements or still her actions or verbally sparring with Willoughby or Dixon.

Three Billboards musical score possesses an identity all its own. Marking composer Carter Burwell’s third collaboration with McDonagh, the score is crafted to uniquely capture the feel of small-town southern culture at war by merging acoustical blue grass with Ennio Morricone-inspired western intonation. The resulting acoustic experience that adds depth to the cinematography and performances. Like Han Zimmer’s The Dark Knight or John Williams’s Star Wars, scores which uniquely adjust for each of the core characters yet fit well within the larger theme of each film, Burwell’s score tailors itself to the characters, growing and changing as they do throughout the film.

Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby and Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is the finest film 2017 so far. For all of its violent bluster and sarcastic charm, Three Billboards is a deeply heartfelt examination of grief and responsibility that sticks with us long after we leave the theater. Three Billboards is truly art imitating life: simultaneously chilling and hopeful, and in possession of an abstract ending.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5 

A version of this review was originally posted on ElementsOfMadness.com

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