Released November 10, 2017
Rated R (Violence, Language Throughout, Sexual References)
1 hr. 55 min.
Directed, Written, and Produced by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths)
Cinematography by Ben Davis (Seven Psychopaths, Guardians of the Galaxy)
Music by Carter Burwell (In Bruges, True Grit )
Edited by Jon Gregory (Donnie Brasco, In Bruges)
Also Produced by Graham Broadbent (In Bruges, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and Peter Czernin (Piccadilly Jim, Seven Psychopaths)
Starring Frances McDormand (Fargo, Almost Famous), Woody Harrelson (No Country for Old Men, Zombieland), Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Moon), Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom, Manchester by the Sea), Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class, Contraband), Abbie Cornish (Limitless, Seven Psychopaths), Zeljko Ivanek (Hannibal, Argo), Kerry Condon (Captain America: Civil War, Better Call Saul), Amanda Warren (The Leftovers, Mother!), Sandy Martin (Speed, Napoleon Dynamite), Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones, X-Men: Apocalypse), Christopher Berry (Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Lincoln), Samara Weaving (Ash vs. Evil Dead, The Babysitter), and Clarke Peters (The Wire, John Wick)
Deep in the Ozarks, in the little town of Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes has had enough. Seven months ago, her daughter was brutally raped and murdered, and for seven months she has heard nothing from the local police department. Investigation? There seems to be no investigation, and she has an idea to get it all started back up: rent three billboards on an abandoned road outside town and, there, challenge Chief Willoughby (Harrelson), draw him out, light a fire under the police department’s butts.
The people of Ebbing don’t take too kindly to this idea. They harass Mildred and dig back up things from her past that she’s tried to bury. Officer Dixon (Rockwell), especially, attempts to take matters into his own hands, though he’s not very good at it and finds that his own insecurities, bitterness, and racism trips him up more often than he’d like. Meanwhile, Mildred tries to face down the whole town, even at the expense of her own still-living son, Robbie (Hedges), who feels depressed at having to confront issues he had almost successfully buried himself.
Then, Chief Willoughby does something, a deed that he feels will help matters, without realizing just how far-reaching an effect he can have.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which I will henceforth refer to as Three Billboards) may have an unwieldy title, much like another movie I reviewed not long ago, but it is not an unwieldy movie. Actually, it’s quite an amazing film, and a surprising one. If you read a synopsis of this movie, even mine above, or watch the trailers, you may think Three Billboards is a crime drama, a mystery film, a revenge thriller, or a combination of those. It is not truly any of those things.
Three Billboards is a darkly humorous, somewhat contemplative, interested examination of humanity, an entertaining look into the human condition and how we interact with each other. It tries to uncover how the ways we interact with each other influence not only the people with whom we’re interacting but also us and those around us. It illustrates the manner in which every action we commit, everything we do, has consequences on the present and future of us and those around us – those we love, those we hate, and those to whom we are indifferent.
“Hate begets hate” is the film’s theme, as a humorous line reveals, but kindness can help break that vicious cycle. This is one of the central elements of the human condition. Mankind has a tendency for selfishness, badness, sin, and evil, but we are redeemable. The worst people sometimes do good things, and, too often, the best-meaning people commit some of the saddest acts. The way we, stumbling through our everyday lives, perceive situations is not always accurate, and the way others perceive us can be the way we are, but it doesn’t have to be.
These themes have certainly been addressed before in movies, but – unlike many others before – Martin McDonagh has avoided being mawkish with these ideas. He has brought his unique, English-Irish sensibility to a story here that takes place in the deep, cut-off countryside of the Ozarks and has created a project that, in some ways, gets to the heart of what he’s trying to say much less heavy-handedly and much more effectively than most. It’s not corny, as it could have been, yet neither does it end up pretentious, as it could have. Three Billboards is a stellar film.
Be warned, it’s also dark, but, as I mentioned, darkly humorous. There’s plenty of black comedy, as anyone who knows McDonagh’s filmography will expect. You may find yourself laughing, maybe too much, at moments, after which you immediately feel bad, due to the content of the joke or situation. Yet no matter how bad you feel, it was a comical thing that happened, something clever, usually true, and you’ll know that. The script is sharp, too, but not unrealistic, and the dialogue is smart but not stylized, witty but natural. People speak like regular folks, like the characters in these settings would. They repeat themselves, say awkward things, pause awkwardly, make up for the silences with filler, spit out words at times, and, at other times, they hold back.
Each action of each character is natural, as well. By the time you know the characters, you know the things they’ve done makes sense with whom they are, even if their actions surprise you. And the film is filled with strongly written characters that will keep you invested, some of which embark upon widely ranging yet convincing arcs. Also, these characters and this story play in a bit of an unconventional plot structure. Right when you think you know what Three Billboards is setting up for, it takes you in a different direction. It’s so logical and understandable, though, that you may not even notice this until the credits roll. As somewhat of a side note, some people have complained about the ending, but I think it’s perfect.
The other technical aspects of Three Billboards also effectually lend themselves to the story. Davis’s cinematography is first-rate but subtle, moving well, directing your attention to the appropriate places, framing everything solidly. The score from Burwell (a regular with both McDonagh and the Coen brothers) with its southern sounds, like a minimalistic acoustic guitar, helps orient you into this Ozarkian environment and keep you there without overwhelming anything. The pacing is slow but not plodding. I was never bored, and I didn’t really find any moments wasted.
The acting is Oscar-caliber. Especially Frances McDormand, who I hope gets a nomination for Best Actress. Her ornery, sometimes mean-spirited, yet gritty and good-at-heart main character could easily be unrelatable, but you constantly feel yourself in her shoes. Woody Harrelson plays an understated but important role. And Sam Rockwell will surely be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He sells his particular story arc, the biggest here.
Three Billboards is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. I walked out highly, highly recommending it, and I want to recommend it to you all.
I’m going to give Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a 96%.