Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is written and directed by Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) and if that doesn’t get your attention, a cast that includes Frances McDormand (“Fargo”), Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, and John Hawkes, just for openers will. McDormand commands attention in every scene in the film and Sam Rockwell as a dim-witted Sheriff’s Deputy is as big a delight as he has been in nearly every darkly comic movie he’s made, including “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” as Chuck Barris in 2002. “Moon” (2009) showed that he can play it straight, if necessary.
When asked about working with Martin McDonagh again in Toronto at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, Rockwell called it “a no-brainer,” commenting on the wonderful scripts he writes and the creativity and originality in McDonagh’s films.
Rockwell—who ends up as second lead—is dead on about the snappy writing and the kamikaze delivery that only someone with the acting chops of Frances McDormand could deliver with the authority to do it justice. The last scene in the trailer should give you some idea of what I mean by “command.”
The basic plot is that Frances McDormand’s character lost her daughter to violence. The teenager was raped and murdered while walking home on a deserted road and Frances is in “Death Wish” mode in her vow to get justice for the murdered girl. While some of that may stem from the fact that she denied her daughter the car that night and some words were exchanged about the possibility of the daughter being attacked and/or raped if she were forced to walk the lonely road, rather than drive it, most of Mom’s dedication is born out of rage and anger. Seven months have passed, yet the authorities seem no closer to solving the crime than the night it happened.
All of the actors in their respective roles are good and Woody Harrelson, who is having a banner year with both “The Glass Castle” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” plays Sheriff Bill Willoughby, a town favorite who is also dying of pancreatic cancer. When Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) puts up 3 billboards outside of Ebbing (which is really Sylvan and Asheville, North Carolina) questioning the failure to solve the crime, a line is drawn in the sand. It is Mildred against the Powers-That-Be.
Besides the writing and the acting, the story feels fresh, like other McDonagh films. Original. Not something we’ve all seen before. As I watched it, I was reminded of the Des Moines, Iowa woman, Peg Mullen, who took out giant ads in The Des Moines Register following the death of her son in the Vietnam War, pressuring the government to tell the truth about her son’s death. She later wrote the book “Unfriendly Fire: A Mother’s Memoir” when her enigmatic ads finally brought forth the truth of his death (from friendly fire). Peg Mullen died at 92 in October of 2009, successful in finally forcing the truth to come out. That is what the audience would like to see here, I think.
Aside from the original script, the spot-on acting and the inherent humor of the piece, the music that Carter Burwell has used in the film adds a lot, especially when dim-witted Officer Jason Dixon, earplugs in, is oblivious to everything around him. Rockwell’s innate sense of comic timing serves him well as the unhinged Officer Jason Dixon.
Just as Peg Mullen used large, full—age newspaper advertisements to force the truth of what happened to her son out into the open, we want Mildred Hayes’ billboards to give us the answer to her daughter’s rape and murder. Without that answer, the film feels unfinished. I heard people behind me at the screening at the Chicago International Film Festival say they wanted to know more about each and every one of the characters created onscreen—always a good sign—but also a sign that the film feels a bit unfinished.
There is also what I’ll term “the Death Wish mentality.” In real life, someone as single-mindedly dedicated to finding the truth by any means possible, even illegal ones, would end up behind bars. The line “Anger begets anger” is used in the film, and that is certainly true here.
Frances McDormand’s character is so full of rage that her relationships with her children and anyone she encounters has been reduced to violence, profanity, and anger. True, there is a nice hospital scene with a secondary character (Caleb Landry Jones as Red) who offers orange juice to the very man who threw him from a second story window, (thereby putting him in the hospital where they end up sharing a room in an ironic twist of fate), and that seems meant to endorse love over hate. But the feeling that pervades the entire film is that Mildred Hayes, who has already suffered an abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) and now has lost her daughter has been poisoned to the point that she can no longer recover. Will she ever be able to smile or laugh or enjoy life again? Judging from what we see, it seems unlikely.
The film is R-rated, as every line has its quota of “f” words, which might bother some viewers. Mildred is incapable of even entering the police station and asking to speak to Officer Dixon without calling him a F—head” and it pretty much goes downhill from there. When the local priest comes to Mildred’s house to ask her to take down the billboards, Mildred ends the conversation by telling him to “Get the f—out of my kitchen.” (It was the second spontaneous applause moment of the night.)
I love Martin McDonagh’s quirky films and his originality and am not easily offended. You don’t come away feeling like you’ve seen this one before. You come away talking about the ending and what you think may or may not happen next, which is always a good sign. The actors do such a good job with the excellent script that only one character (Abby Cornish as Woody Harrelson’s wife) seemed miscast, to me, and, as a writer, I want to emphasize that the entire film hinges on having a well-written script dealing with a fresh idea and then turning good actors loose to do their thing with it. Without that, you end up with a ho-hum viewing experience. Not the case here. Try it; you’ll like it.
Genre: Darkly comic drama
Length: 115 minutesCast: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish
Writer/Director: Martin McDonagh
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Music: Carter Burwell