Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Note: This film has been featured on an episode of my podcast about movies and mental health, Peculiar Picture Show.

“This didn’t put an end to shit, you fucking retard! This is just the fucking start! Why don’t you put that on your Good Morning Missouri fucking wake-up broadcast, bitch?”

In the cinema world, even in films without action and adventure, we’re accustomed to heroes and villains. We have films with complex villains, problematic romantic leads, and even adventures without any discernible villains, but the audience just instinctively knows who to root for and who to jeer against. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and starring Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, is different because it sets itself up as very black and white, with a slighted middle-aged woman and an angry, racist cop, but the film’s narrative goes to some interesting places and it really makes audiences question who they’re rooting for, and why. It’s also a solid, smart drama with effective darkly comedic elements. This is a film that gripped me, but left me thinking for a long time after the credits rolled, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

The plot follows Mildred, a middle-aged, divorced mother trying to cope with the rape and murder of her daughter, and the local police force’s failure to find the culprit. In her frustration, she takes out three billboards on an old country road: “Raped while dying,” “Still no arrest,” and “How come, chief Willoughby?” This causes quite a stir in the small Missouri town, especially since the police chief Mildred attacks is very popular, and Mildred finds herself dealing with anger and retaliation not only from the police force, but also the citizens of the small town. Mildred will stop at nothing to seek justice for her daughter, but Dixon, a cop with some major emotional issues, starts coming after her and others connected with her.

Hate never solved nothing—but calm did. And thought did. Try it. Try it just for a change.

The script was smart and the performances brilliant (both Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell took home Oscars), but the greatest part about this film was its ability to challenge viewers. There are films that have made me think, but very few that have made me question why I’m feeling and thinking the way that I am and reconsider. As I said, this film starts out as very clear-cut, morally, but quickly made me start questioning that cheering instinct I had as a moviewatcher. In fact, the chief complaint about this movie, from negative reviews, is that it’s too hard to deal with the cognitive dissonance presented in this film. Even in the end, this film doesn’t try to resolve the moral quandaries it presents—it leaves them there and forces the audience to question why it feels the way it does about it. There are other films that have tried this, but none have succeeded as clearly as this one.

Though the film (and the town of Ebbing) are fictional, McDonagh was inspired to write the script by a real case in Vidor, Texas in 1991—a local hero from a rich family was accused of killing a young woman, and billboards were placed by the victim’s family when the case went unresolved for too long. McDonagh heard the story and envisioned a film about a strong woman, and wrote the script specifically for Frances McDormand. McDormand was the perfect choice for Mildred, but she was initially reluctant to take the role due to her age. She reluctantly took the role, at the insistence of her husband Joel Coen, and delivered one of the best performances of 2017.

Both lead performances were brilliant. Sam Rockwell’s Dixon, while initially seeming one-note, ended up being a fantastically complex character.

The feeling of the film is an interesting mix of tragedy, dark comedy, and inspirational strength. It doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing how life is beating the crap out of its characters, and there are some moments that are genuinely heartbreaking. I wouldn’t describe the film as a comedy, but there are bits of levity that keep things from getting too glum, although I found myself a few times wondering if I should be laughing. Mildred is a pillar of strength in this film even as the world turns against her, but most of the major characters end up choosing good even when bad things happen to them. I think the word “powerful” is thrown around too much with movies, but that’s really an apt description of this one.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that makes viewers think and question their assumptions about good and bad people, and it’s also a highly effective drama that kept me gripped as it unfolded. The brilliance of the film is that it doesn’t go out of its way to make its point—the point is so subtle that some viewers failed to see that the film is asking some really tough questions, and that led to a number of negative reviews on the film. If you’re looking for a smart, hard-hitting drama that will probably make you question some of your assumptions of morality, this will be a great fit. I go into some more detail on what these questions are and what they mean in my podcast, if you’re interested.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:55

Director: Martin McDonagh

Year: 2017

Genres: drama, indie

Rating: R

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