REVIEW: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Theatrical Release Poster – Fox Searchlight Pictures

The following is a review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh

To say that you’ve seen Martin McDonagh’s entire filmography isn’t all that impressive. The Irish playwright’s filmography only includes his excellent Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter and now three feature films. But in these few films McDonagh has already established some trademark elements that are always in his films. Unstable and impulsive male characters that are often marked by their previous misdeeds, some kind of stable mentor or friend to the impulsive male, lots and lots of curse words, oh and he’s a big fan of joking about little people.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is different from McDonagh’s other films in many ways, but those trademark McDonagh elements are also within this film. Some rather important changes in Three Billboards is the fact that this film deals more directly with major societal issues, it also includes, for the first time in McDonagh’s films, a female protagonist. But the serious societal issues with which Three Billboards to some extent deal do not result in a  significant change in the tone of McDonagh’s film.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a story about anger and the effects of such an intense emotion on an American small town community. It tells the story of how Mildred Hayes (played by Franced McDormand) calls out the local police force over their inaction and lack of success in finding the man who raped and murdered her daughter.

Mildred has rented three abandoned advertising billboard spaces. On the first billboard it says: “RAPED WHILE DYING,” on the second billboard it says: “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” and on the final billboard she asks: “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson) is the local police chief, and he is a foul-mouthed, but fairly kind family man who suffers from terminal pancreatic cancer. Therefore, the local community does not look kindly on the billboards, as they believe them to have targeted a good man.

Officer Jason Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell) agrees, and he becomes angry with the frustrated Mildred Hayes and Red (played by Caleb Landry Jones), the man who rented the billboards to her. Mildred Hayes does not care what Dixon, Willoughby, nor the rest of the community thinks of the billboards — because she is overcome with anger and she needs heads to roll.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a true ensemble picture. You’ve got great performances from the entire cast. Caleb Landry Jones and Sandy Martin have smaller, but not at all inconsequential, parts to play in the film, and they are absolute scene-stealers.

Woody Harrelson’s role is much smaller than I thought it would be, but I thought was very effective. Harrelson gives a lot of heart to the police force, which is described poorly by the entire cast. He is the beating heart of the police force, and evidently a decent man. He has some great scenes in this film, and his greatest of these was a bit of a surprise to me. His character takes a turn that I did not predict, but one I did understand.

But there are two truly astounding performances in Three Billboards, and they are the performances given by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is such an underappreciated actor, who, throughout his career, has given strong performances. As Officer Dixon, however, he seems to have found the role that will give him the final push towards stardom. He plays a complex bigoted character, and he is exactly what this movie needed to land the tone that McDonagh is going for.

Similarly, Frances McDormand is, frankly, perfect as Mildred Hayes. I’m not sure if this role was written for her, but it sure seems that way. She attacks this role with fervent anger and a flippancy that is right for Mildred Hayes. Her performance as Mildred Hayes is unforgettable.

This all gives you the idea that I liked Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and it is true — I did like the movie. However, there are some valid concerning criticisms that I would suggest do hurt the film. McDonagh does a good job of balancing the comedy in the film with the harsher and tougher themes in the film, but there are some issues with the film’s handling of one character trait and it’s impact on the film.

It is definitely the most ‘problematic’ picture in McDonagh’s filmography for the fact that McDonagh seems to trip over some of the social issue elements that he takes with him into the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. While I do think most of the dialogue is deliciously witty and that McDormand was perfect for McDonagh’s dialogue, there are also some things that bothered me immensely.

One of these things is that one character is often accused of committing, and I quote, “people of color-torturing,” yet African-Americans in the film play such a small part in the story. McDormand’s character has an African-American female friend who gets into trouble because of her, there is a black police officer, and one of the people putting up the billboards is a young African-American man.

In a film where a racist cop is given a chance to prove his worth, there are only three minor characters of color and the rest of the African-Americans in Ebbing, Missouri act as little more than extras that one may presume had previously been the victims of a central character that is not really reprimanded severely or, really, punished for his racism — instead, it is an act of sudden violence on a white man that leads to him being reprimanded slightly. That is problematic.

I also think it is fairly problematic that the character Angela Hayes — the daughter — is, essentially, given one scene. To the best of my recollection, there is just one scene that attempts to expand on her character. Similarly, it did also bother me that Mildred Hayes is basically one of only two women given screen time that isn’t presented as being dim-witted or overly giddy. The film includes a character who is basically a somewhat offensive stereotype, and another female character is only characterized by her age and her stupidity. Maybe these characterization and thematic issues will work better as I rewatch the film, but on my first viewing these issues hurt the overall experience of watching the film.

With all of that having been said, it did not ruin the movie for me. I think it certainly is a flawed film, and it certainly isn’t McDonagh’s best film. However, those issues did not ruin what was otherwise a very entertaining film dominated by strong performances left, right, and center. From Caleb Landry Jones to Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and the incomparable Frances McDormand. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a flawed but effective acting showcase.

8 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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