Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Jacob Richardson | 2/01/2018

Raw, visceral, but also darkly funny, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that will stay with you for a long time after viewing.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred; a single mother, somewhat recently out of an abusive relationship, who works in a cutesy antique shop. Mildred recently suffered a terrible tragedy; the rape, mutilation, incineration and murder of her daughter. To her frustration, the police, led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his sidekick Dixon (Sam Rockwell), have yet to find any leads. In her anger and frustration at the lack of progress, Mildred rents a series of three billboards, which question the lack of progress and single out Willoughby as the key responsible figure. The film then explores the impact that this very public statement has on key members of the town; including Mildred’s son, Willoughby, the estranged father, Dixon and, of course, Mildred herself.


Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has all the dark humour and black emotionality of his previous work. It deals with incredible tragedy poignantly, and brings a realism to racism in the region seldom done as well.


McDonagh toys with the traditional crime and detective genres, but never lets the beats of these well trodden paths overshadow the main storyline, being the emotional connection between Mildred and these three billboards. It’s a smart move. So many character studies struggle with endings, but here McDonagh gives a strong structural conclusive beat to his character introspection that keeps the audience keenly interested throughout.


It doesn’t hurt that the script is incredible. McDonagh has a flair for writing convincing dialogue in the least convincing of scenarios, and this is on full display here. There are some holdovers from his previous work in the amazing monologue delivered by Mildred to her priest, or in the letter from Willoughby. But here he also deals well in the non-spoken communication of looks, glances and long pauses; most notably with Sam Rockwell’s Dixon. Dixon is a racist, immature and developmentally slow police officer who aspires to the detective position. His arc in the course of this film is one of redemption, but it’s his change from the braggadocious racist to the quiet supporter that is most compelling, because this, in many respects, is representative of McDonagh’s own mastery of the art of quiet communication. He has done away with the showiness and endless monologuing of something like Seven Psychopaths; here, he is happy to let the actors fill in the subtext. And Rockwell, playing against type, does spectacularly well at this.


Even so, it’s Frances McDormand who is the standout of the film. She is utterly ferocious as Mildred; a tour de force of female empowerment, driven by her unimaginable grief. She’s sad, hopeful, angry and kind all at once. It’s best represented in an interrogation room scene, where her savage back-talking switches to utter compassion in a heartbeat. It’s here that we see who she truly is; a smart, kind woman who is immensely tired of the inaction around the most important moment in her life.


McDonagh expertly brings all of this to the fore. It’s an exploration of the lengths people will go to for the thing they care about most. It’s an exploration of tragedy; of loss, heartbreak and the utter shattering of everything that was once your life. Even better? It’s bloody hilarious.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a more distilled version of McDonagh’s usual schtick. It’s raw, tragic and intriguing, while also being darkly funny and featuring an incredible performance from Frances McDormand. A must see.