Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

An oddly titled film has been an unexpected success so far with annual awards

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Tři billboardy kousek za Ebbingem)
Directed by Martin McDonagh
With Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges

People in rural America often face ridicule on the big screen. Refreshingly, they are taken more seriously in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a dark drama set in and around a small town.

The film won four Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture – Drama, as well as awards from other competitions and film festivals.

It also has nine BAFTA nominations including Best British Film, as the director and producers are British. Oscar nominations have not yet been announced, but it is considered a front-runner.

The title refers to something that sets a series of events into action. Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand) rents three billboards on a rural road where a crime occurred. In large letters she asks why there has been no arrest, blaming Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in particular.

This more than divides the town, as almost everyone opposes the signs and wants them taken down. People would rather forget about the crime.

Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) in particular wants them taken down, but is hard-pressed to find a law requiring it. This doesn’t stop him from harassing people, though. Early in the film, his racist tendencies get exposed, and that becomes one of the film’s underlying themes.

The subject matter is on the surface quite serious, but all of the lead actors are actually talented at comedy. There is a layer of often dark humor throughout the film, which the cast handles with subtlety, at least most of the time.

Mildred has a knack for saying what is on her mind, and that can be almost anything. When the local priest comes to tell her what the town has decided about the billboards, according to him, she turns the conversation to an awkward comparison of street gangs and groups responsibility, implying the priest is de facto guilty of recent church scandals by association.

Sam Rockwell even manages to make Officer Dixon a little likable, despite his obvious flaws and despicable actions. The character, who lives with his even more racist mother, has some depth, but that doesn’t justify the inexcusable things he has done. It just shows that there is a potential spark of good in him.

Rockwell and McDormand won Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture and Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama, respectively.

Woody Harrelson as the sheriff tries to be sympathetic. He explains how there were just not enough clues, and the investigation stalled but is still open. He tries to balance everyone’s rights, including Mildred’s, as the billboard situation spins out of control. He also has a family life, which creates a few touching scenes.

Some broad humor does come in with Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), who left her for a 19-year-old zoo assistant who mixes up words like polo and polio.

Peter Dinklage, famous for Game of Thrones, has a minor role as a pool player at a local bar who is interested in Mildred. His character isn’t just the butt of height jokes. He says a few insightful things to people.

The script, written by director Martin McDonagh, allows several of the characters to face their flaws and transform during the film. American films tend to be about external conflicts, while European films are about internal conflicts.

McDonagh, a British-Irish writer-director, blends both sensibilities. The broad outline of the film is more like a Western, with the town divided between on an issue and the sheriff and his deputies trying to maintain an edgy peace.

But the conflicts inside the characters are the more interesting ones, Mildred after many months has not come to terms with the crime mentioned in the billboards, and as the film goes on the audience finds out why. Officer Dixon also has a chance to be introspective about his past and more recent actions.

Also more in line with European cinema, the film leaves a lot up to the viewer. Not everything is wrapped up in a pretty bow. People can come different conclusions about whether the billboards were a good idea, and many other topics raised but the film.

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