Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouri_ver3STARS3In the opening minutes, a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is driving by three dilapidated unused billboards on a seemingly deserted rural road. A beautiful rendition of the traditional Irish melody “The Last Rose of Summer” sung by opera singer Renée Fleming swells in the background. Mildred is seen contemplating the signs themselves. We soon learn that she’s a divorced mother grieving the recent loss of her teenaged daughter that was raped and murdered 7 months prior. She’s understandably angry and wants justice. Sounds good. I’m on her side. Let’s find the culprit. She rents the ad space for all three billboards and emblazes each with the words “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, “How come, Chief Willoughby?” separated on each one.

Chief Willoughby is the Sheriff of Ebbing Missouri played by Woody Harrelson. He’s a beloved figure in the town who, as the director begins to stack the deck, happens to be suffering from a fatal illness. The townspeople, by and large, aren’t on her side. This is a bit perplexing at first. I mean her daughter was murdered for goodness’ sake.  Apparently, they’re concerned that the huge outdoor signs are insensitive given the sheriff’s condition. Although she and her son (Lucas Hedges) are harassed, Mildred stands firm becoming even more cantankerous and destructive. She ends up doing a lot of really heinous things that make the townsfolk (and us the audience) hate her. She assaults a dentist, kicks school-aged children in the groin, and commits a little felony called arson. We even see Mildred scream at her now deceased daughter “I hope you get raped” in a flashback sequence.  Granted it’s clearly an exchange she regrets. Nevertheless, would your mother ever utter such a thing?

I assume Mildred is the hero. Sheriff Willoughby is sympathetic to her plight too but he is shown to be ineffective at best and compassionate to racists at worst. Less sensitive is one of his men Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). We’re told he actually tortured a man in custody because of the color of his skin. Yes tortured. We never actually see the abuse in question though. In some ways, this is an even more pernicious filmmaking decision because it indirectly absolves shameful behavior because we do not actually see it.  We’re assured it happened though. “Allegedly” Officer Willoughby jokes. Is that funny? Officer Dixon is a seething irredeemable pile of racism. Or is he? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a movie that creates likable individuals that we end up hating while simultaneously creating loathsome people that we’re asked to snuggle up to.  It’s a moral quandary to be sure. I’m not comfortable with embracing a violent bigot. Are you?

Who am I expected to root for? That is the question in this story. Frances McDormand plays a mother whose daughter has been raped and murdered. We obviously feel sympathy for her but at one point she inadvertently almost kills an innocent man. Well “innocent” of the crime in question but guilty of being a despicable human being. Are we supposed to cheer or jeer? I still don’t know. What I do realize is that no one in this picture is appealing and giving reprehensible people a redemption arc is patently offensive. I’m conspicuously in the minority. Three Billboards has gotten universal acclaim. I mean it’s well acted by the entire cast. Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson imbue their characters with as much humanity as the script will allow. Although why a southern redneck sheriff is now married to a stunningly gorgeous woman with an Australian accent (Abbie Cornish) is a conundrum that goes unanswered.

Despite the moral dilemmas, Three Billboards is strangely entertaining. I was intellectually fascinated by the utter unpredictably of it all. The capricious turn of events in the plot’s final third is completely incomprehensible. This may be playwright Martin McDonagh’s best cinematic effort to date, but it’s still a lesser version of what the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino do so well.  Martin McDonagh’s point of view is too muddled for me to truly embrace. Is this hilarious comedy or is it a weighty drama? Conspicuously dire circumstances are presented as lighthearted farce. To wit: Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) is a wife-beater dating a girl that is of barely legal age (Samara Weaving). Poor Penelope delivers lines that show the audience she’s clearly an airhead. Does that mean her life is any less important? She’s introduced as an object of ridicule but I wanted to save the poor girl from being another battered statistic. Get out of that relationship quick. You’re in danger! I guess those kinds of ethical qualms are a hindrance to enjoying this narrative’s “comedy.”  Sorry. I wasn’t laughing.


24 Responses to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

  1. Excellent review-you reallly nailed it.


  2. smilingldsgirl Says:

    Yeah I guess some people like the dark comedy elements better than you and I did. My theater was actually quite boisterously laughing and I was sitting there confused. I saw it as an assault on midwestern morality and the kind of people many in Hollywood hate. I think that is why many love the film. If you look at many of the reviews they talk about a sense of catharsis. Just as Mildred is seeking revenge for her daughter they want revenge against a type of person they hate. The Sam Rockwell character is a puzzle. I sat stunned when the gay man is thrown out of a window and everyone in my theater was laughing. I don’t get it. I guess it is just not for me.


    • I can’t fault the film for how people react to it. Your theater sounds like it was full of people of like mind with the Sam Rockwell character. I didn’t think that was the director’s intention until the very end.

      As far as “the kind of people many in Hollywood hate,” does that include young women? Samara Weaving plays a character that is the butt of airhead jokes and yet she’s in a relationship with a known wife beater. Are we supposed to laugh at her situation?


  3. Martin1250 Says:

    I saw this film two weeks ago because of the hype around it and overall, i didnt like it and thought that it was nasty.

    There was also one scene that was a little too off. When Mildred embarasses a priest in her home.

    However i must admit that i laughed at Sam Rockwells performance. Not the cruel things he does but just the portrayal.

    Ps. Mark, i find that your reviews usually match your star rating.this time, it reads more like 2.5 stars.


  4. I remember you had similar issues with the lack of any rootable characters in his brother’s film Calvary — such a void of goodness surrounding a conflicted individual. Except here it sounds like there’s a weaker mechanism for empathy for the hero. I’m curious about this movie but I guess I’m in for another rough ride. Cuz I didn’t really take to Calvary either. I have however been a big fan of this McDonagh’s filmography, especially In Bruges.


  5. “…no one in this picture is appealing and giving reprehensible people a redemption arc is patently offensive.” Hear, hear!
    I felt that way about “Boogie Nights.”


    • I was trying to think of other movies in which a redemption arc was undeserved. I felt like everything fell apart at the end of Boogie Nights. Which character or characters got the redemption treatment?


      • –the “family” fell apart and Burt Reynold’s character apologized and they rejoined. In the last scene (I’m pretty sure), they are partying at his house, all is forgiven.


      • I suppose Three Billboards is a little different because we’re talking about 1 racist person in the form of Officer Jason Dixon. With Boogie Nights there were quite a few and their failings were different. Either way, I appreciate your insight and it makes me want to revisit Boogie Nights again.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Martin1250 Says:

      Hi Cindy. I hope am not intervening in the wrong way. am just interested in your comment. I simply wanted to add that if you are undecided on watching this film, i think it depends on how much you enjoy dark comedy. There is lots of unpleasant
      behavior in TBOEM.

      For comparison sake, i think Boogie Nights is a better film despite the redemption feeling at the end. Boogie Nights has a flow and directing style, and is a reminder of Scorceses work about watching poor people obtain riches by comprimising their morals. Whereas TBOEM seems to be more interested in depicting unpleasant behavior rather than its story.


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