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Film Review: THREE BILLBOARDS looks to start a conversation

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight


There’s a scene about midway through “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” where Frances McDormand goes off on a rant to a priest (Nick Searcy) sitting in her dining room, who just told her that the town doesn’t appreciate her radical measures of bringing attention to the murder of her daughter. She uses the term “culpable” in describing his methods for blaming her actions, when he can’t be held accountable for his (apparently, some altar boys were molested and this priest knew about it and did nothing). I said to myself, “this is exactly the clip they’ll use when McDormand inevitably wins her second Best Actress Oscar” which, of course, is only, a few years removed from when she last won for “Fargo.”

That’s not the only clip you could toss in a reel, as McDormand owns the screen for two hours, where she throws around mounds of writer Martin McDonagh’s sharp dialogue. “Three Billboards,” is a masterful work of precision and wits, and it features a talented quartet - (Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Lucas Hedges) - to help tell this story in the confines of a small town, that represents rural America at the core. In the process, “Ebbing” transcends the boundaries of dark humor and forces you to sit down and talk about it afterwards.

Speaking of transcending boundaries, let's take a peek at Mildred (McDormand) a tough as nails and stubborn widow that’s stirring up controversy in the homeland of the faintly quiet Ebbing, Missouri. A few months back Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered, and, like any grieving mother, wants justice. Forking over a hefty sum of $5,000 cash to the advertising department in town, Mildred plans to make a statement when she purchases three billboards on the outskirts of town that read as follows, and in order: “Raped while dying. And still no arrests? How come Chief Willoughby?”

This doesn’t go over to kindly with the law enforcement, especially the town's token racists cop, Dixon (Rockwell in one of his absolute best performances) who sees the boards and alerts Chief Willoughby (Harrelson). They try to talk her down, and come forth with peace offerings: but MIldred doesn’t take strife from anyone, let alone police officers. She’s ready to handle the type of attention and ramifications that come with the territory. Even if that trickles down to her family and takes a hefty toll on her son Robbie (Hedges) who has to answer to the bullies at school, and the town, all of which think Chief Willoughby is a saintly man, which, as the film moves along, proves true.

Rockwell’s Dickson, however, is not. But the film gives this unredeemable character a total shift once the second half of the movie comes around, and McDonagh (best known for “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths”) makes that arch seem totally believable. It’s a politically charged movie on the surface, but underneath is a deeply rooted message of tolerance and justice in society today. McDonagh wants to stir the pot, and boy does he, but he doesn’t let the movie slip away from his grasp. Even when “Three Billboards” feels like it’s giving the audience a conventional sense of hope, McDonagh rips out the carpet from our feet. In fact the jokes on us for believing it. This is a man that truly understands the complexity of his characters.

Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones - which, between “Get Out,” “American Made,” and “The Florida Project” is proving to be a force to be reckoned with - and Abbie Cornish all round out the ensemble on display here. Surely, folks will be turned off by the ambiguity which leaves the viewer on a hook, but, in my opinion, I felt that was more satisfying as it allowed me to bask in what the film was trying to conclude, even if doesn’t tie up loose ends or give me the answers. After all, this is McDonagh’s show, and we should be fortunate enough to feel included, as it works best when you don’t ask questions, but when you sit back and just listen. A

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