I love December movies! Oscar buzz is beginning and some of greatest movies the year has to offer start to pop up. That trend continues with the new dark comedy drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, a film that peaked my interest when it debuted during movie festivals earlier this fall. Both a spectacular crime film with social and cultural significance and an effective comedy with great humor and characters “Three Billboards”, as I will shorten it to in much of this review, is a film worthy of its early Oscar buzz and is as entertaining as it is significant. Let’s take a closer look shall we. On with the review!
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” stars Francis McDormand as scarred and foul mouthed mother Mildred Hayes who rents three billboards outside of her town to call out the local police for failing to find her daughter’s killer. Specifically she calls out the sheriff, Bill Willoughby played by Woody Harrelson, who feels for her pain but tries to explain that some crimes just can’t be solved with traditional investigative methods and no suspects. With the sheriff dying from cancer, Hayes becomes the target of criticism town wide including from a drunken officer names Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, who goes to great measures to defend his superior. As the controversy grows and the billboards become more famous, or infamous, everyone involved is forced to look at themselves and who they have become in a story that touches on police brutality, free speech, and whether or not revenge is ever warranted in place of compassion.
“Three Billboards” actually sounds simple, but the beauty of this film is you can look at it two different ways. On one hands it’s a great action-comedy-drama that never really hits a dull point and keeps the story going frame by frame in a smooth and well directed manner. On the other hand this film has a lot to say about a lot of things deep beneath the surface. It’s a warning about police brutality, a cautionary revenge tale, and a universal life lesson about anger and peace of mind all wrapped in a nice package without any of its underlying lessons of morality overpowering the other aspects of the film or turning the movie into something too heavy handed to bare.
There are so many great performances that hold this film up, starting with Frances McDormand as the female lead, Mildred Hayes. She’s a woman who has lost so much in her life which has led to her finally taking a stand, even if it’s one not everyone might agree with. She escaped an abusive marriage and tried to be everything she could be for her children but after an altercation becomes the final moment she spends with her daughter before said daughter is raped and burned to death she feels wronged by the world and wants justice to prevail. An interesting aspect of McDormand’s portrayal of Hayes is that Mildred is not necessarily the good guy or hero here. She’s simply the fire starter in an inferno of controversy really. She has no prejudice against the sheriff, but because he’s the man in charge she singles him out. She loves her son but to prove a point she puts his reputation on the line to make her stand. She escaped her abusive husband but now she has become a shell of a woman who abuses everyone in her own way. Hayes is very human and clearly damaged by the hand she was dealt by life and while McDormand makes her an easy woman to route for she also makes Hayes an easy woman to criticize. It’s one of many very human characters that make up the cast of this great film.
Two other performances I want to touch on are Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff Bill Willoughby and Sam Rockwell’s Officer Jason Dixon. Honestly Harrelson’s character may be my favorite one in the entire film. Despite being the center of the criticisms on the three billboards the Sheriff always has an optimistic and understanding approach to life. This is a man who sees the best, and worst, in people and is clearly meant to be a reminder of how not all law enforcement officers are the bad guys when a crime goes unsolved. Harrelson brings charisma, charm, and humor to this role as a man who never tries to be perfect, and never demands it of others, but proves to be the opposite of Hayes, trading cynicism for a more upbeat perspective on the tragedies of life. This role is important because it serves as the character we should use to balance all others and Harrelson pulls it off to perfection.
On the other end we have Dixon, one of the talented Sam Rockwell’s best performances to date. Dixon, too, is scarred by life but he is even worse off than Hayes. His demons have turned him into the violent, racist, and angry stereotype many have attributed to cops nowadays and Rockwell doesn’t hold back at all in bringing to life a man who believes he is justice when in reality he is the demon. Dixon is a complicated character in that despite his story arc helping him reach a point of redemption he never truly evolves into the man you want him to be. Like other characters he remains imperfect and Rockwell holds a lot on his shoulders to make a character that would otherwise be unmemorable and cliché actually relatable and significant. In terms of what he had to work with and the weight of this role Rockwell is one of the most impressive actors in this film, as he had to take a villain and make him redeemable while remaining flawed and unlikable.
One theme you may have noticed throughout this review is that a lot of the characters in “Three Billboards” are extremely human and flawed. Almost noone in the film is a perfect person worthy of being let off the hook. They all have their demons, they all have their crimes, they all have their faults, but they also all have aspects of themselves that make them worth embracing. Hayes is a stubborn woman so bent on revenge she is willing to put reputations on the line to make it happen but she also cares about justice for the silenced and doesn’t let anyone escape when they should be crucified, even herself. Sheriff Willoughby is a cursing man who overlooks the harsh actions of his subordinates, but he does so because of his faith in humanity and his love and respect for life as well as his hope that all people are redeemable. Dixon is a drunk who hates and hurts anyone he comes in contact with, but he’s also a devoted son and a man who wants to bring justice to the world in his own way. “Three Billboards” works best as a masterful character study that shows nobody is perfect and noone is ever fully at piece. Life is a shit show, it’s all how you look at it.
If there is criticism to be had with “Three Billboards” its that it doesn’t go all out with its major underlying themes, but in reality this actually kind of helps the film stand as a more universally important piece rather than becoming a voice for any one issue specifically. I enjoyed the fact that the movie takes some chances and wasn’t afraid to dwell on the obvious without being too over the top. It’s easy for a film to take major societal issues and overplay them, but “Three Billboards” always feels controlled and self aware of the points it wants to make and how to properly make them.
And all of this is balanced out with humor. If nothing else, “Three Billboards” is a very funny movie in the sense that the conversation, which feels fluid, and the characters, which come off as real and unforced, turn in creative one-liners and inside jokes that will certainly bring a chuckle to any viewer and creates moments of levity in an otherwise pretty dark and serious story. It all comes back to what I believe is the most important message this movie has to offer which is that life has harsh moments and we shouldn’t forget those moments, but we shouldn’t dwell on them either. Life doesn’t have to be serious or organized or even fair, life just has to be life and through incredible acting and impeccable direction and writing from Martin McDonagh “Three Billboards” hits the nail on the head without being pretentious or preachy.
In summary “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a satisfying dark comedy that truly shines as a lesson to each of us through the eyes of numerous well presented characters following a tragic and unthinkable crime. It’s important without bring self-important and makes great points about life, anger, and loss without being heavy handed balancing all this with a narrative that hold nothing back and humor that is effective and naturally funny. “Three Billboards” is a fantastic piece of filmmaking with the right balance in almost every aspect. It’s just enough to make a point and leave a memorable mark without going too over the top and is definitely among the best comedies of the year, or any recent year now that I’m thinking about it. There’s a lot to be learned from this movie and I’m glad people are taking the time to check it out. I highly recommend you do too.