In Three Billboards, Ebbing, Missouri is a small, rural town. Not much happens within its borders other than the occasional minor infraction. With the small exception of Angela Hayes. You see, Angela, was raped and murdered almost a year ago. The severity and brutality of the crime shocked the town to its core, none more than Angela’s mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand). The horrific acts of her daughter’s death, coupled with Mildred’s belief that after months with no progress the Ebbing Police Department could use a fire up their ass, prompts Mildred into extreme action.
Three abandoned billboards outside of town, on an almost unknown road, inspire Mildred’s plan. She secures their rental for the year and has them branded with the following messages in sequence: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” That last one inflames a town, as Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a beloved leader in the community. A devoted family and lawman, Willoughby also happens to be dying himself. With an angry, drunk, and violent deputy at his side in Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Willoughby sets off to solve the Hayes case before pancreatic cancer snuffs his chance.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an anomaly. A deeply tragic insight into the hearts of the grief stricken, as well as a moving character piece on the residents of a forgotten town. The film also contains numerous shockingly dark comedic turns. Barney Fife-esque escapades, random violence, and symbolic melodrama culminate in a melting pot of Americana. If you walk in expecting a crime drama, you will ultimately find disappointment here. There is no resolution within these frames that will satisfy those seeking the conventions of a modern murder mystery. This is a story about Ebbing, Missouri itself, and the souls trapped within.
Frances McDormand is a stature of resilience as Mildred, a grieving mother no longer willing to accept the incompetence of others in solving Angela’s murder, or in any capacity really. Long thought to be one of the most accomplished actors working, McDormand once again proves worthy of almost as many accolades as Meryl Streep. The fierce determination and lack of interest in accepting anything other than complete resolution to her daughter’s death is a performance that boldly dares you to look away, as it is near impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen whenever McDormand adorns it.
Woody Harrelson is less enigmatic in his role as Chief Willoughby, mostly because Harrelson has tapped this dance before. A warm, dedicated family man with a penchant for the turn of a word or a sarcastic gaze, Willoughby is the Harrelson Special. That doesn’t take away from the quality of his part, rather than establishes an actor who carries its water with ease.
Tasked with the most difficult role is Rockwell’s Dixon. Here we have a cop we all should hate, and often do. Seemingly racist, prone to violence and fits of drunken rage, Dixon is a vision of how many currently see those in law enforcement. And while he may seem horrendous at first, Sam Rockwell infuses the character with enough old-fashioned likability that even as he’s bouncing suspects off the pavement, you’re still kinda rooting for the guy to turn it all around. As everything in Three Billboards, Dixon has much more behind the eyes, and Rockwell takes us all on a ride of discovery until the final reel.
That brings me to the ending. While I will not spoil anything, I will tell you that the resolution not only ruined the film for me, personally, it also stomped its overstuffed loafers over much of my goodwill for its earlier portions. Many will applaud writer and director Martin McDonagh’s choices at the end as “bold filmmaking”. Well, I prefer to call it cheap. You can chop it up to expectations if you prefer, but I left the theater feeling cheated at the complete lack of respect I felt as an audience member. For two hours, this film built something magical; a hidden world of stunning performances diverse in rich character development, tragedy, hilarity, and evolving pathos. And McDonagh’s preference was…THAT?! It’s been awhile since I felt a film was prepped for eternal reverence, only to see the final frames rob it of its rightful place in the cinemascape.
For almost the entirety of its run time, this is a film teetering on greatness. Acting, writing, twists, turns, emotion; it’s all here. The final 10 minutes are where the film makes it or breaks its promise to its audience. A film review needs to be a sum of its parts, so while the majority of this experience is a treat to observe, the abysmal conclusion is an unforgivable sin. Trust me when I say, you will walk out of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri either loving or hating McDonagh’s final decision.
For this reviewer, the next time Ebbing, Missouri shows up in my travels, I’m just gonna keep on driving.
Starring Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson
Screenplay by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Martin McDonagh