Film Review: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'
In a time of citizens rising up to demand change and justice, the powerful, emotionally charged Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri strikes all of the right chords. And with writer and director Martin McDonagh at the helm, its impact is maximized as a vehicle of sharp protest.
We’re immediately introduced to the film’s titular iconography, as a fed-up Mildred (lead actress Oscar nominee Frances McDormand) drives through the Missourian countryside. With a gentle country soundtrack, the scenic cinematography does the setting justice and highlights the wear and frustration in Mildred's face. She then spots a trio of dilapidated billboards on an empty road. The gears turn in her head. The idea is cooked.
Before you know it, she’s already visiting the advertising company downtown to rent out the billboards for the year, demanding it with fervor, force, and passion. As a mother having lost her daughter to a horrible rape-and-murder by a criminal still not caught, she uses the billboards to call out the local police department - and chief Willoughby (supporting actor nominee Woody Harrelson) in particular. It's only just scratching the surface of this volcanic performance by McDormand’s performance; as we'll see, the Oscar nom is well-deserved.
The bright red billboards immediately cause a fervor among the cops, starting with Dixon (Sam Rockwell, also earning a supporting actor nomination), and coming to Chief Willoughby himself. Willoughby pays a personal visit to Mildred to discuss the unfairness of the billboards, and the verbal sparring match that ensues ensures that’s not happening. It's the first of many applause-rousing tirades by Mildred of several institutions: corrupt police, the Catholic church, divorced fathers, and many more. Mildred and the movie as a whole do not mince words.
If the nominations were any indication, Three Billboards shines in its trio of great performances by McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell, and it's due to them that McDonagh's bitingly sharp script comes to fervent life. In fact, strong performances abound, with Abbie Cornish playing Willoughby's loving wife and counsel, Peter Dinklage as the small town's well-meaning “town midget” (by his own terminology), and former Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges (for Manchester by the Sea) playing Mildred’s only teenage son.
There's no doubt that Three Billboards is the strongest ensemble cast of the year, but it's the foundation of McDonagh's solid screenplay and the execution of his direction that truly lets the movie shine. The film goes beyond a simple central character and instead sports a thematically deep story that spans the backgrounds, motivations, and lifestyles of nearly all of its characters, with all things good and bad. Mildred may be the hero, but as we see in a gut-wrenching flashback with her daughter (Kathryn Newton), she's no saint either. Dixon is rough around the edges with a drinking problem, and he still goes home to his mama (a tough-talkin' Sandy Martin). Willoughby, a great father at home, struggles with his own personal issues - health and emotional - making his personality on the job much more relatable.
The wide cast brings all things dramatic and humorous, which makes it tough to categorize Three Billboards. It's not just a drama, it's not just a comedy, and it's not just tragic. There's a spectrum of stories to be found, and that makes it one of the more thoroughly enjoyable movies in the awards circuit. Make no mistake, though, that it all comes back to McDormand's fiery turn and McDonagh's great writing and directing to illustrate the movie's driving message: demand action. When Mildred lights that fire under Willoughby and the police department, she also lights a fire within us. It's not enough to hope for change; it must be fiercely demanded.
Rated R. 115 minutes.
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh.
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.