Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

If someone wanted to make a parable film that summarizes the essence that drove many people to vote for Donald Trump in the last election, they could do worse than the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The characters, almost without fail, are full of anger. All of them are looking for an outlet to their anger, but the rightful target for their anger is unclear for almost everyone except Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand).

Mildred is the backbone of the film. We meet her seven months after her teenage daughter has been raped, murdered, and set on fire. The police have made no progress in the investigation-she says she hasn't heard a word from them since her daughter died-and her frustration leads her to erect the three billboards referenced in the title.

The billboards question the police chief by name. The chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is respected in town, and he's also dying from pancreatic cancer. Those two factors contribute to many citizens of the town siding with the chief rather than Mildred.

Besides the slow investigation, Mildred has plenty of other things to be angry about. Her ex-husband is dating a nineteen-year-old woman. An officer on Willoughby's force, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), has decided to do everything he can to make Mildred's life even more difficult, and James (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf, is trying to put the moves on her, romantically.

All of these people end up victims of Mildred's anger, but in the absence of her daughter's killer they're all poor substitutes. Even Willoughby receives more respect from her than anger. She admits that she put his name on the billboard not out of any personal hostility toward him, but rather because he's the man at the top, and the buck stops with him.

But other than the desire to find the man who killed the teenage girl, it's a thread of angry discontent that holds together the characters in the film. Willoughby's happy with his life, but he sees the end approaching. Dixon has been accused of police brutality (which somehow leads to humorous exchange between him and Mildred). Mildred's life had begun falling apart even before her daughter was murdered. Through flashback we see a fight between her and her daughter in which hateful things are said, and horrible things are wished upon others. In the same scene we learn that she once drove drunk with her kids in the car, and that her ex-husband used to beat her. And her ex-husband, who obviously misses his daughter, also has a sort of latent anger at finding himself involved with a nineteen-year-old.

So what to do with all of that anger? It finds an outlet, and as the nineteen-year-old mentions at one point, anger begets anger.

The film is bleak in tone, character, and appearance. Much of it takes place under gray skies, and Ebbing is the sort of small, perhaps past-its-prime town that can sap the last bits of life left in its residents. Everyone drinks, which we can sort of understand. With their environment and their life circumstances it's no wonder they want to escape, and alcohol helps them do it.

It would be easy to portray Mildred as someone deserving of endless understanding and compassion, but they don't try to smooth out her rough edges. She does many things in the film that make it hard to side with her. Willoughby comes to the realization of just how cold-hearted she can be when he's questioning her about why she put up the billboards with his name on it. He tells her that he's got cancer, and is then surprised when she tells him that she already knew. "You knew I had cancer and you still up the billboards?"

Francis McDormand plays this sort of stern, no-nonsense character so well, and she's got a couple of scenes where we see just how hardcore she is. Sam Rockwell's Dixon is a jerk, but as Willoughby points out, he's got heart and he's a good person deep down. I don't know if Rockwell's just getting old, or if he intentionally tried to look pitiful for this role, but he pulls it off. And is it ever not great to see Woody Harrelson on screen?

Although there is a central question of the movie - who killed the girl? - the film is interested in more than catching the bad guy. The characters transform both because of things that happen to them, and because of realizations they arrive to. And although there isn't a single character that we can like without reservation (except for Robbie the advertising exec who rents the billboards), we can't completely hate all of them either.

There are moments of real humor mixed in with all of the heaviness, as well. Much of it comes from things that are so inappropriate that they're only funny in the context of even worse things that are happening, but it doesn't matter. Funny is funny.

We're left to speculate on what the future holds for the characters. We've watched as they've balanced on the fence that will separate a wasted life and fulfilled life for each of them. It's not clear which direction any of them will go, but at least by the end they realize where they're perched.

4 stars

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