Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)


I had few expectations going into Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I was still surprised by the film I got. Certainly there are signature elements of the work of director Martin McDonagh here, who in only three films (the savagely funny In Bruges and the metatextual dud Seven Psychopaths, in addition to this one) has managed to create a type of film all his own. Here, as in his other films, the dialogue is cutting, switching between acidic putdowns and sorrowful reflection, and the characters are various shades of awful, but never caricatures. The plot moves seamlessly, shifting with elegance and purpose between scenes even as it moves in some unexpected directions. But the elegance of individual parts never coalesces into a powerful whole.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is funny and thoughtful with moments of arresting pathos, but it also left me a little confounded, as if McDonagh is deliberately leaving his thematic explorations hanging. Perhaps that’s the whole point; nevertheless, I’m left more admiring of the film’s individual elements than celebrating it as a towering achievement of filmmaking. Your mileage may vary.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows Milfred (France McDormand), who puts up the three billboards on the outskirts of a small Missouri town excoriating Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his failure to find the man who raped and murdered her daughter seven months earlier. The billboards draw a backlash from the community, mainly driven by a racist, oafish police officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), which soon spirals out of control as the various residents of the town react to Mildred’s showdown with the police.

In its broadest strokes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a reflection on undirected rage and how one person’s anger can infect everyone else in their orbit. The film is wise enough to show that Mildred’s frustrations are rooted in a desire for justice—not only have the police failed to find her daughter’s killer, but others in the town, particularly her abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes), treat her actions as an assault on the status quo. But the film is not just about the wages of anger. It’s also largely a demonstration of that old truism: people are often more than they appear to be. 

Much of McDonagh’s focus lies in setting up characters as caricatures and then exploding our assumptions about them. For instance, early on, our perception of Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby changes drastically, first in a brutally-affecting scene in an interrogation room with Mildred, where Willoughby coughs up blood and Mildred’s aggressive opposition instantly melts into concerned sympathy, and then again later when the narrative takes an unexpected left-turn.

The later part of the film turns its focus to Rockwell’s Dixon, an abusive bastard with no business being a cop. But in scenes with his mother (Sandy Martin) and later, Mildred, we start to learn that beneath his blustering, oafish exterior is a child with a need for clear-cut right and wrong to exist in the world. Rockwell has long been a sturdy performer who elevates the material he’s given. Here, he’s allowed to show off his impressive range, demonstrating a boorish physicality that hides childlike affection; Dixon should be an easy man to hate and yet Rockwell keeps you rooting for him to some degree, even in spite of his monstrous actions.

Of course, Frances McDormand is the film’s linchpin and standout performer. However, at points I fear that McDonagh doesn’t know what to do with such a ferocious character—in one scene she literally talks to an obviously-CGI deer, reflecting on the film’s themes in clumsy ways that indicate McDonagh isn’t always the great writer he’s hailed as—yet McDormand always steers the character through the emotional terrain of each scene, silently conveying Mildred’s tormented inner life or cutting characters to the quick with an icy stare or acerbic insult. McDormand has long been an exceptional actor, but rarely has she been able to manifest such complicated, repellent anger and pain. Female characters north of 40 are rarely afforded as much emotional complexity or repellent character flaws as Mildred is, and McDormand relishes the opportunity to put these complexities on display.

Ultimately, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri excels at character and functions largely as a showcase for great performers. McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell are all wonderful, but Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage also impress in smaller roles. It’s writing, however, is more questionable. While McDonagh excels at cleverly structuring his story—the unexpected narrative detours disguise the fact that there’s a clean three-act arc to all of the major characters here—I’m beginning to question his gift for dialogue.

In particular, there’s a sourness to the film’s acidic humour that lingers past the runtime. Certainly, the film is funny, but the dialogue is a little too awed of its own cleverness and often bears the stamp of its writer more than its characters. In one scene, McDormand berates a local priest for his condescending concern for her and her son, using a baffling comparison to the Bloods and Crips to condemn the church’s handling of sex abuse scandals. McDonagh, an avowed critic of the Catholic Church, has foolishly let his own obsessions infect his characters who would have no interest in them.

As well, the racial and sexual epithets flow a little too casually, as if the filmmaker finds them as funny as the characters do—that McDonagh continues to make dwarf jokes (after going to the well so often in In Bruges) is confounding. I get that this captures how people talk in the real world and I’m not for scrubbing films clean of any possible offense, but moments here veer into Alexander Payne-territory, where the humour doesn’t just reveal the absurdity or moral awfulness of characters, but invites the audience to sneer at them too. 

At least McDonagh is trying out new visual flourishes as a director. Two scenes involving fire are stark and compelling in their use of light and shadow, while another scene finds McDonagh dabbling in the increasingly-popular long-take to great effect. As well, he’s particularly good at framing the titular billboards, as they seem to consume most scenes taking place around Mildred’s house, haunting the back of the frame whenever characters are out front.

There’s a reason that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has touched a nerve. It speaks to the world we live in, a world driven by anger and rage against the institutions and individuals that have let us down time and again. It’s well acted and cleverly-composed, even if it bears the shortcomings of a writer enamoured of his own intellect. It dabbles in big statements about the modern world, but it’s held back by choosing wit and verbosity over moral investigation at most every turn. It’s a film of significant surface pleasure, but it’s a little unsatisfying considering the talent involved and the depths hinted at. 

McDonagh is a clever writer, but he ought to get out of his own way and let his stories tell themselves for a change. Authorial intrusion can be interesting, but when you’re dealing with scenes that borrow so heavily from real-life traumas, you ought to let unencumbered honesty do the heavy lifting.

6 out of 10

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, USA/UK)

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Kathryn Newton, Kerry Condon, Zeljko Ivanek, Amanda Warren, Sandy Martin, with John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage.