Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri first published by RealCrime Magazine

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is fearless and angry. It has been seven months since her daughter Angela was ‘raped while dying’ in the (fictional) town of Ebbing, and now Mildred has decided to rent three billboards to advertise the lack of progress in the police investigation, singling out Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) by name on a poster.  

The police are furious – especially Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a slow-thinking, tightly wound, lazy racist mamma’s boy notorious for having once tortured an African American in custody. Bill though, a loving husband and father who insists that Jason is “a good man at heart”, is himself rather calm about the billboards. He is also dying of pancreatic cancer, and unsure of what mess he might be leaving behind to less level-headed, less competent men. 

The poles between which the events of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri unfold are love and hate, and they can turn on a dime. In a scene near the beginning, Mildred positively seethes with defiant, uncompromising aggression towards Bill (and reveals that her hatred of the police may in part stem from the fact that her abusive ex-husband Charlie was a cop) – but when Bill involuntarily coughs blood on her, she instantly becomes a different person, protective and caring. 

As it happens, that scene represents Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in a nutshell. For it concerns vindictiveness misdirected, and love and compassion conjured at the most unexpected moments – and while Mildred may be its main character, it is Jason who will undergo the greatest dramatic character shift, in what is an absolute masterclass of both writing and performance. Like Mildred, Jason is angry at everyone – in his case as the result of a troubled past – but eventually he will learn (or does he?) to focus that anger on the investigation into Angela’s horrific death, rather than on whoever just happens to cross his path and piss him off.      

Bringing the same finely tuned balance between violent, character-driven drama and dark absurdist comedy that had already marked his In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), writer/director Martin McDonagh has crafted a gripping, often surreal concoction of dentists and defenestrations, midgets and morons, first dates and fire bombings, in an escalating scenario where, as Charlie’s dumb (but maybe not so dumb) new girlfriend puts it, “Anger just begets greater anger.” There is a Coen-esque flavour to these hostile high jinks, suggested (along with McDonagh’s Irish origins) in the lilt from Carter Burwell’s opening piece, reminiscent of his earlier score for Miller’s Crossing (1991).

In the end, those three signs outside town are also signifiers – of a community’s grief, pain, shame and unresolved internal conflicts. They are also, writ large, the tensions – of race, of class, of gender, of religion, between forgiveness and revenge – that beset and in many ways define contemporary America. 

© Anton Bitel