Written by: Mathew “JJ” Simoes
The aptly titled, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (the last time I will type that long title), is one of the most heart wrenching and powerful films I’ve seen all year (that year being 2017). That being said it’s not a perfect film, as it struggles to engage with the political aspects of the film.
This film is about Mildred Hayes, whose daughter was raped and killed seven months prior to the film’s events. Due to the lack of progress in her daughter’s case in those seven months, Mildred puts up three bill boards near her home that call out the local police department’s lack of progress in the case. What results is tense confrontations between the members of the small town as they each go through their own experiences of grief.
The film’s main premise is built off the pain being felt by a single mother, but throughout the story other characters go through painful experiences that leave them with pain, and anger. For the most part they tend to deal with this pain in the absolute worst way possible as they can’t move past it, leading to scenes of irrational action. The film starts out focusing on Mildred’s pain, but as the film continues other crises occur which are all in some way connected to Mildred’s own. In each of these instances, the characters look to target something that would explain the pain their feeling, and the films shows why it can be difficult to get over those emotions. It’s hard, and it takes time, but eventually we all have to move on before we are consumed by what eventually becomes an obsession.
Three Billboards is a movie about a world filled with pain and injustices, many that go unanswered for, and the frustration someone can feel when that happens. Unsolved murders with no justice for the victims, fatal illnesses, random acts of violence and instances of police brutality. The trouble with processing the emotions that comes with all this is the central journey that the characters embark on, as they learn to move past focusing on one person as the source of their problems. For example, Mildred’s relationship with her daughter and the aftermath of the murder is far more complicated than the failure of the police. The film shows all these layers so the audience can understand where Mildred’s pain comes from and why she targets the police department through the billboards. Despite all the harm caused by the characters, McDonagh makes their motivations complex enough that they never become unlikable.
McDonagh’s direction and use of visual imagery helps show the journey that these characters are just as well as any piece of dialogue or character interaction can do. The center of this imagery is the three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, which are used by McDonagh to convey where the characters are emotionally in any given moment of the film. The film isn’t as visually stunning as other offerings in 2017, but the cinematography and direction help to create an atmosphere that brings out the raw motion in McDonagh’s script. The musical score for Three Billboards is excellent, with each note adding to each scene
This film has a great script and good direction, but it’s heart is the performances given by it’s actors. Francis McDormand’s presence in the film brings out the pain, guilt and anger that her character is going through. There’s also something incredibly cathartic about seeing her insult and assault the town members opposed to the billboards, largely due to the attitude McDormand convey’s in her performance. Rockwell’s execution is great, playing both the role of comic relief in the film as well as a very confused, damaged, individual. He and McDormand play off each other well, and their onscreen dynamic makes for some of the films most interesting moments. Rockwell’s character is a violent racist, but his performance and McDonagh’s script make for character that doesn’t alienate the audience. Harrelson’s performance is also worthy of praise, with his ability to bring subtle nuances to his portrayal of Chief Willoughby. The supporting actors all do excellent jobs, though beyond the three just mentioned, most of the other characters play smaller roles in the film. Peter Dinklige’s character is the focus for one of the best scenes of the picture, and his charm makes his character’s pathos all the more effective.
The film’s one flaw is a failure to engage with the political backdrop McDonagh establishes for his film. The story of loss and grief in the film co-exists with concerns over police brutality and racial profiling, though it’s presence is really just there to drive the plot forward. It hangs in the background, as none of the characters engage with it in any way that is substantial. One of the characters is accused of torturing an African American suspect in the beginning, and it never comes up again in the film. What the viewer sees as a result of all this, is a bunch of white people talking about how terrible police brutality is, while the only two prevalent black characters in the film are largely sidelined. McDonagh’s intentions were good, but it’s made difficult by a lack of representation.
Three Billboards is a tour de force and is filled with raw emotion as characters learn to process their grief. Though not a perfect film, the performances and McDonagh’s direction make for a powerful viewing experience.
Mathew’s Rating – 8/10
What did you think of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and as always stay tuned into the Talkies Network.