Movie Review: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – An Unexpected Delight

Written by Jeremiah Greville December 08, 2017

 

Three Billboards

It’s shocking at this point that Sam Rockwell has never been in a Coen Brothers or Tarantino film. As one of those rare talents that can effortlessly switch between leading and character roles, it’s a damn shame he hasn’t had more luck with directors. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is his second film with writer-director Martin McDonagh, and hopefully signals a lasting creative relationship. Woody Harrelson also marks his second appearance with McDonagh, delivering a solidly dependable performance. But wait, you might be thinking. What about that actress in the trailers? You know, the main character?

Heh.

Trust me. I definitely didn’t forget Frances McDormand. And if you get a chance to see Three Billboards, you won’t either.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a woman seeking justice for her murdered daughter. To do so, she rents the eponymous billboards to keep her daughter’s unsolved case in the public eye. In calling out the local sheriff, however (Woody Harrelson), she angers the community, and his racist subordinate, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). What follows is not your ordinary drama about loss and justice, nor your average southern-set crime comedy. Three Billboards is a truly unique black comedy about the complexities of grief and hatred in a small town. It’s baffling, unexpected, and often brilliant.

“What can and can’t you say on a billboard?”

Three Billboards is a very strange movie. It’s a good movie, and at times thoroughly great, but it’s very strange. Have I said that enough? What makes the movie so strange is the same thing that makes it memorable, and often wonderful: the way it handles character choice and interactions. Characters in Three Billboards aren’t static placeholders for the plot to unfold around — they are the plot, they drive it. They often change based on what other characters say to them, or what they experience. These changes aren’t character growth in most cases, but rather character revelations, allowing the audience to see people we think we know in entirely new light. Heroes, villains, and everyone in between all get to shine because of this.

Three Billboards

And each of these revelations, or turns, or twists, are both unexpected and entirely understandable. The movie turns completely on its head more than once and goes to places you’re not quite ready for. And yet each turn feels familiar and earned—you’re never jolted because of an unfair twist or made to feel uneasy because of a narrative sleight. Three Billboards is played straight, just not in a direction you might be used to. I don’t want to give the impression that Three Billboards is a difficult or overly complex film, just that it is, thankfully and wonderfully, a new take on story we’ve seen before.

“I don’t think those billboards is very fair.”

As a genre film, Three Billboards is even more implacable. The best fit might be to call it a black comedy, but I feel more comfortable describing it as an offbeat drama with some funny moments. Like last year’s Manchester by the Sea, it can be downright hysterical at times, and rightfully so, but at its heart Three Billboards has a serious story to tell, and wastes no time getting into it. It’s more lurid and sensational than most Coen Brothers films, and less emotionally resonant than most Hallmark dramas. It confidently occupies a uniquely pulpy space that allows it to hit most notes sincerely and without hesitation. Mildred Hayes can be soft and considerate in one scene, and swearing down authority figures with aplomb in the next, without ever betraying her character.

Three Billboards

While the entire cast is memorable, Frances McDormand is the real reason to see this film. I don’t know if she’ll win any awards for her role, but I’ll be shocked if she doesn’t at least secure a Best Actress nomination at every awards show worth a damn. Mildred is a fascinating, flawed, multi-layered woman and one of my favourite lead characters in years. For film or screenwriting students, she’s one to study — she’s an active character driving the plot whenever she can. She’s hardscrabble, but never unfeeling. She has a viewpoint that can sometimes be extreme, but always understandable. Three Billboards is not a movie about mourning with her, or pitying her loss, but about cheering her on as she does what she thinks is right, even if we disagree. And it’s McDormand’s raw talent that makes any of that possible.

“I didn’t have to hold your ladder.”

As I mentioned before, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson are both standouts, and complement McDormand nicely. Each actor or actress carves out their own Southern flavour and the result is surprisingly honest and affecting. Rockwell and Harrelson are also joined by other McDonagh holdovers Željko Ivanek and Abbie Cornish, who all appeared in his last film, Seven Psychopaths. Ivanek also appeared, briefly, in McDonagh’s first film, In Bruges. Lucas Hedges recycles his material from Manchester by the Sea as a grieving son, while Peter Dinklage and Caleb Landry Jones both have minor roles as citizens of Ebbing who help Mildred with her cause. If there’s one flaw to the film, it’s Cornish, who through no fault of her own seems completely out of place amidst the others. Still, the performances throughout are great, aided by McDonagh’s script and confident direction.

Three Billboards

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a wonderful film, and a true delight. From the cast and the trailer, I don’t think many would be surprised to find out that it’s good. But as a movie experience, it was really unexpected. Three Billboards goes places you don’t expect, but completely understand, and never betrays its vision or its characters while doing so. Because of this, you might feel yourself a bit lost in the narrative as you watch it, but hold on to that feeling. Sometimes it’s for the best. If you see enough movies in a year or in a lifetime, that feeling can be hard to come by. Three Billboards cultivates it in the best way, and McDormand’s confident performance never leaves you truly stranded. If you have a chance to see this film, take it. You won’t regret it.

My Rating: 8/10

Three Billboards Poster

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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