Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review: Frances McDormand Leads a Small-Town Tale About More Than Revenge

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The sequence of events in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri almost make it feel like a true story. One could say, the story is so ridiculous that it must be true. But Martin McDonagh has created a brisk work of fiction that, in the grand scheme of modern cinema, is refreshingly unpredictable. But to achieve this, it does sacrifice a consistent tone for jarring shifts—mostly in the first half—that come at the cost of both comedy and drama.

The story follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) after the gruesome rape and murder of her daughter. It’s been several months, and the cops of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri haven’t made much headway on the case. In retaliation, she rents three billboards for a whole year that she directs at calling out the police and their negligence. They’re led by the terminally ill Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a genuinely good man just trying to live out his days in peace, much to Mildred’s dismay. Also on the force is the violent, drunk beat cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who’s role initially feels extraneous, but evolves into something meaningful in the second half.

As the story gets going, what holds the film together dramatically is the confrontational yet respectful relationship between Mildred and Willoughby. McDormand plays her role with gusto, and finds humor in a lot of the right moments as a woman rightfully angry that may have been so long before her daughter’s death. But the story in the first half is slow, and most of the other characters are only defined by moments they get as their roles in this story come to a close. Harrelson and Rockwell put up good work, just nothing that seems particularly challenging for either of them.

But as the story gets cooking in the second half, the many pieces on the board set up earlier come out to play in unexpected and rewarding ways. As the film starts to marry its grim subject matter with its black comedic tone, the story streamlines itself in a way that’s less jarring and more reflective of McDonagh’s singular vision. An ending that puts character first and leaves a few plot threads dangling is ultimately Three Billboards’ greatest reward. It also goes a long way in fixing the film’s disjointed execution.

In terms of McDonagh’s filmography, In Bruges this is not, with the film landing more on par with the generally enjoyable, though thin, Seven Psychopaths. Three Billboards has more substance to it than that barrage of kooky actors in kooky roles, discussing the ethics surrounding punishment for the worst of society, and adapting it through a simple yet effective Midwestern lens, while getting a fulfilling point across even through the occasional bouts of violence. But as entertainment, the film comes up a bit shorter than you’d think it would based on its premise alone. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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