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Film Review – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

As the calender switches to December, more Oscar-hopeful films are expanding out into more theaters, hoping to attract large audiences.  Another one of those films is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, an incredibly dark comedy from director Martin McDonagh, the man behind In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.  The following review will be spoiler free.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Synopsis

Directed By: Martin McDonagh

Written By: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, and Lucas Hedges

Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is still grieving the loss of her daughter months after she was brutally raped and killed.  Upset that the police has done little to find the killer, she puts up three billboards outside the small town of Ebbing, Missouri to accost them on a grander scale.  Her actions polarize the town, causing some to act quite vicious towards her.  The police force in town naturally don’t take too kindly to the ads either, souring the dynamic even further.

Background

Clearly, the star of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Frances McDormand.  However, her co-star, Sam Rockwell, is absolutely an actor worth noting.  Rockwell chooses different and quirky roles, frequently pairing up with directors more than once since they love his work.  In fact, Rockwell has already paired up with Martin McDonagh multiple times in the director’s young career.

However, Rockwell hasn’t exactly “blown up” like you would expect.  Those that are very in tune to Hollywood know and love him, but he’s isn’t a household name like Chris Pratt or Leonardo DiCaprio.  Calling Rockwell a “cult favorite actor” may be an appropriate term.  That being said, he consistently puts out fantastic performances over and over again, earning respect from some of Hollywood’s better directors.

Who knows, maybe his goal isn’t to become a star but rather to challenge himself as an actor.  Whatever the case, everyone should come to realize his talents.  He’s too good to go unnoticed.  Regardless of the film’s quality, hopefully more moviegoers learn Sam Rockwell’s name after Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell are Absurdly Good

Luckily, as I just alluded to above, both Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand are stellar, becoming the most fascinating characters on screen with ease.

The obvious star of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is undoubtedly McDormand in the lead role.  She’s perfect as an absolute curmudgeon.  Her character, Mildred, doesn’t take anything from anybody, operating without a filter at all times.  Exclaiming that she is steadfast in her beliefs is quite the understatement as she endures threats of all kinds and still somehow manages to soldier on.  But, underneath her tough exterior is a lot of love that doesn’t quite know how to reveal itself.  She has very complicated relationships with just about everyone, making  for some powerful conflicts throughout the film.  Guarded by the tragedy she must now handle, her emotions are held very close to the chest, making them that much more impactful when they come out.

Her interplay with others including Woody Harrelson make for some great interplay.  However, the best portion of the movie comes from Sam Rockwell.  He starts as a bigot cop that’s pretty hilarious in his unlikeability.  Then, the story of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri takes him on a wonderful arc that is by far the most compelling element of the film.  By the end of the film, you might just cheer for him.  All the while, he spouts profane dialogue like nobody’s business, providing much of the dark comedy that Three Billboards has to offer.

Explores Uncomfortable Themes in Ways that Make Them Even More Uncomfortable

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a very, very gutsy film.  Martin McDonagh tackles very uncomfortable themes like police relations and utilizes dialogue in those conversations that make the situations even more uncomfortable.  The term “dark comedy” is thrown around a lot these days, but Three Billboards legitimately earns that moniker.  You’ll be shocked at the dialogue that passes as humorous.  McDormand and Rockwell might need to scrub their mouths with soap once the press tour for the film is all said and done.

A lesser director would have relied predominantly on the shock value of the humor and kept everything on the service, but McDonagh uses the cringeworthy humor to open up a discussion on sacrifice, good deeds, and loss.  Behind the foul mouths of these characters are people that have serious problems, and McDonagh captures that idea beautifully.  At its core, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is actually a really depressing story about a lot of troubled people.

three billboards outside ebbing, missouri

image via Collider

A Limited Central Arc Causes Three Billboards to Lose its Edge

Then it comes to the arc of Frances McDormand’s character which is, unfortunately, pretty nonexistent.  As viewer, it’s rewarding to see the main character undergo some type of change, whether it’s good or bad.  You keep waiting for McDormand to either lose it completely or turn over a new leaf.  But, as the third act unfolds, you’re left with the notion that she hasn’t really changed at all.  At this point you may begin to wonder, what exactly was the point of the entire story?  What exactly am I suppose to take away from the film as I leave the theater?

The themes mentioned above become muddled as the credits come over the screen, making you wonder if the ride was worth it at all.  Three Billboards is so aggressively politically incorrect that it needed a tight bow on it to wrap up the plot.  In this case, the film whiffs, causing some to leave the theater with nothing to hold on to.  The film could very well be one of those Oscar contenders that general audiences quickly forget about for that very reason.

Final Thoughts

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri boasts incredible talent led by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell.  It’s honestly a travesty if they don’t receive nominations.  Martin McDonagh wrote some fantastic dialogue that led to some incredible moments of dark comedy, leading to scenes that are equal parts funny and cringeworthy.  But, a less than solid character progression of Mildred Hayes causes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to lose a lot of its steam.  It gets a B.

The film crosses the line of dark comedy into mean-spirited insults.  However, there’s enough here to make Three Billboards worth watching in preparation for Oscar season.

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Nick Kush

A current young professional, Nick founded MovieBabble in October of 2016 in order to provide insightful film analysis that is meant to educate and entertain. Nick is also a member of the Internet Film Critics Society. You can follow Nick at the official MovieBabble Twitter account @MovieBabble_

19 Responses

  1. Great review Nick, although I disagree with your comments about no narrative arc and the weight you place on Rockwell’s performance. The arc is framed entirely around justice, vengence and Mildred’s unbounded nihilism in finding who raped and killed her daughter. Its a tight as a drum. As for Rockwell, it is an over-acted part based on stupidity. He is a comedic distraction only. The real co-star is Harrelson.

    • Nick Kush says:

      Yeah I see what McDonagh was trying to do there, but I just don’t find it very satisfying to a have a lead character that shows little change, no matter if it’s good or bad. There’s definitely an unwavering dedication towards avenging her daughter, but, eventually, that feeling becomes grating if you ask me

    • Nick Kush says:

      And I strongly disagree about Rockwell!! Lol, yes he’s dumb and moronic, but he learns so much about common decency that’s quite refreshing by the end

      • I can not let this one breeze by me Nick. The last scene tells all; Mildred is prepared to kill out of primal maternal vengence; Rockwell is happy to kill because he is a violent moron. No real change, no “common decency”, just dumb. Always nice chatt’n with you Nick.

      • Nick Kush says:

        Nononononono after he read the letter from Harrelson’s character he certainly had a change of heart. In combination with the near death experience brought on by the fire at the police station and overhearing the two guys talking in the bar, he clearly wants to help in some capacity. Is he still a little simple minded? Obviously, but the fact that he even alerted Mildred to the man shows at least modest growth as a human since he was basically enemies with her early on in the story and was too busy preying on people unnecessarily.

      • You are indeed a kind-hearted soul Nick. cheers

  2. I would argue that Mildred (McDormand) does have a character arc. It’s not something that she dwells on for too much, but her perceptions are obviously challenged to the point where she realizes that she was wrong about certain things.

    What do you think would have made her character arc better?

    • Nick Kush says:

      See I was leaning towards that sentiment as well until the ending basically proved that she hadn’t had much of a change of heart in either direction. We get that outburst from Peter Dinklage’s character at the restaurant that appeared to have some effect on her, but I felt that any emotion felt from it was quickly expunged when she mulls killing a man that had nothing to do with her daughter’s death. Obviously, that man was a terrible human being that deserved some type of retribution, but Mildred’s plan to maybe kill him is just an extension of her blind rage that she had throughout the film.

      I would have maybe liked to see a glimmer of coping with her daughter’s death in some capacity or, on the other side of the spectrum, lose hope entirely. That would have been a serious downer, but it would have worked with the underlying depressing nature of the film. Personally, the ending left me confused with how to feel. Leaving it up to the viewer in that case seemed like sort of a cop out when you had just experienced a pretty straightforward narrative.

      At the end of the day, it’s just an opinion and I acknowledge that many will and already adore the film.

      • The Peter Dinklage part, and the part where she realized it wasn’t the police officers who set her billboards on fire, it was her husband, and she realized her hatred of the police was blinding her to the point of making terrible decisions.

        I can see where you’re coming from about the still-wanting-to-kill-the-rapist kind of thing, but I still don’t think there’s a problem; the entire movie is about Mildred finding closure (which was her drive to buy the billboards in the first place), and when she discovers she may never get closure, but she’ll take what she can get.
        I don’t know if it’s fair to say to her character “Your daughter was horrifically raped and murdered. The killer will probably never be found. Find a way to get over it.”

        I don’t know, I think this is the best movie of the year (so far), so I’m pretty quick to defend the film. lol

      • Nick Kush says:

        Lol I hear ya! I really enjoyed her coming to realize that not everyone in the police force was out to get her, especially with Sam Rockwell who was the star of the film in my mind. I guess I would have liked one more scene to conclude her story. Who knows, maybe I watch it again and appreciate more for what it did. Sometimes films need an extra viewing for me!

      • Yeah dude, Sam Rockwell killed it. I agree with that.

      • Nick Kush says:

        He better get a nomination or I’ll quit watching the Oscars lol

  3. Bryan Caron says:

    I agree with a lot of this review, no more so than with Sam Rockwell, aka Crewman Number 6. The moniker may be have been a joke, but it’s becoming clearer over the years that Rockwell is somewhat of a crewman No. 6 in Hollywood. People probably know his face, and he’s always at the top of his game, but if Hollywood had to excise its roster, he’d probably be one of the first to be cut, which is a shame. Have you ever seen Moon or The Way Way Back? If not, you absolutely should, because not only is his performances in those films just as outstanding as it is here, those films are better films overall!

  4. Katy S. says:

    They filmed it up near my college Western Carolina University and in Sylva, NC. Really want to see this film.

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