Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri snuck up on audiences. There wasn’t a massive advertising campaign (relative of course). The release was slow moving as it went wider and wider. The movie has all the right elements without falling into the negative meaning of ‘Oscar bait.’ The award attention is allowing further expansion to a larger audience.
Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a mother in grief. She’s also a strong willed woman who never takes any guff from anyone; to a fault at times. Months have gone by since her daughter’s brutal rape and murder. The police in Ebbing have not made any arrests and have no leads. Mildred rents billboards calling out Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) by name.
Some of the more brutish members of the town take great offense to the billboards. Mildred succeeds in kicking up a storm but the drama that ensues doesn’t go as planned.
Writer/Director Martin McDonagh is a master at mixing the dark with the hilarious. His resume boasts such amazing movies as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The characterization is shocking and rarely predictable. The plot doesn’t go exactly the way you’d expect and that becomes one of Three Billboards greatest gifts.
Towards the end there are a few disappointing moments. Strong character building moments are squandered or ignored outright. Actions go without proper consequence. These actions feel out of place with the direction the movie takes. A small issue, but one that leaves a bit of a bitter taste in the audience’s mouths.
Look past the odd character moments that don’t quite land for the strength in the rest of the movie. Frances McDormand is at the top of her game, beating out even her best known performance in 1996’s Fargo. She’s a mother in grief. A woman with attitude. A former victim who is strong enough now to never be a victim again. She’s bullish, thick headed, and determined. But she’s not unreasonable.
Harrelson would be filling the role of villain in a weaker script. It takes a single masterfully written scene between him and McDormand this changes. There is a clear mutual respect between the two.
Immature and dangerous, Dixon’s (Sam Rockwell) actions constantly threaten to drive a wedge between the two. He isn’t a bad person, he’s a moron. He sees his actions as loyalty. Willoughby is the only one who can keep Dixon on a leash.
The billboards become a physical manifestation of the struggle within Mildred. The case of Mildred’s daughter is put aside as the main plot. Eventually it’s the why of the movie, not the what. Chaos surrounds the characters who all end up being likable in their own way.
The script switches from drama, to comedy, to tragedy, back to drama, without missing a beat or feeling jarring in the slightest. The writing is truly exceptional for most of the movie. The acting is exceptional the entire time.
Frances McDormand delivers the performance of her career. Three Billboards has a bit of a Coen Brother’s feel while dealing with some serious tragedy. McDormand works with an all star cast. Unfortunately McDonagh never quite figures out the end.