Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: A Whirlwind of Comedy and Tragedy

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand star in this crime-comedy.                  PC: Fox Searchlight

Sometimes a film can be so many things that it is hard to define what it is. I believe that “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the newest film by Irish playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh, director of “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” is one of those films, and by God does its blend of comedy and drama work so well. So much so that it is now nominated for seven Oscars (at the time of writing this review), and one of my favorite films of 2017.

The plot follows Mildred Hayes, portrayed by Frances McDormand, as she wages a personal war against the Ebbing Sheriff’s Department for the lack of progress in the investigation of her daughter’s rape and murder  with three eponymous billboards which directly attack them.

McDormand is accompanied by co-stars Sam Rockwell, depicting a bigoted and racist police officer, and Woody Harrelson, portraying the sheriff of Ebbing facing against Mildred after he becomes a subject of attack in the billboards.

The story evolves into one that addresses a multitude of social issues (particularly about race and the police force) as well as personal themes of family, anger, and redemption. I found the story to be more about the personal themes, illustrating a story that says that human decency could be found in the cruelest of people, and how a mother will do anything for her children.

This quote by famed author Agatha Christie is what this film embodies: “A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”

The writing in this film is strange, but that’s not saying that it’s garbage. In fact, the writing is exceptional in every step of the imagination, as it manages to handle two wildly different emotions with care and practice. Some lines in this movie that made me laugh so hard that I ran out of breath because of it. Other lines that bring me to the near-brink of tears.

The fantastic writing is further elevated by the performances of the three leading characters. Frances McDormand gives a genuinely fiery performance as Mildred Hayes. McDormand demonstrates her acting mastery by taking advantage of the script’s blends of comedy and tragedy, delivering some of the most hilarious and emotionally potent lines in the film.

Sam Rockwell’s character, Officer Jason Dixon is arguably my favorite character in the movie, not because he is blatantly violent, racist, and dim-witted, but because I feel as if he experiences the most significant change out of all the characters in the film.

I won’t spoil what causes this change, but I will say what I’d never thought I would say: that this movie made me sympathize with a racist. Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby, while being the most minor of the three main characters, still delivers a fantastic performance as an honestly conflicted character dealing with the rage of Mildred Hayes and the bigotry found within his police force. The minor characters in the film also gave excellent performances, with Peter Dinklage as well as Caleb Landry Jones and Zeljko Ivanek giving incredible, if brief, performances as some of the more eccentric of Ebbing’s residents.

I don’t have much to say regarding the technical aspects of the film, as they are second to the writing and performances; they are exceptionally well done. Both the editing by Jon Gregory and the cinematography by Ben Davis help bring this film alive visually.

Another strong element of the film is the score by Carter Burwell (who also did the scores for McDonagh’s previous two films, as well as “Being John Malkovich” and “Anomalisa” among others), which creates a fitting ambience to the mood of the film, as well as adding a folky flavor to better fit the setting of the southern United States.  

Even though I love the film, two things stuck in my mind that I have to criticize. One is the performance by Lucas Hedges who played Mildred’s son Robbie. Hedges’ performance, while not being entirely mediocre or bad, pales in comparison to the rest of the main cast. He plays a rather one-dimensional angsty teenager dealing with a whole lot of problems.

Another issue I have with this movie is a flashback scene where the themes and dialogue converge to get a little heavy-handed and sloppy. It surprised me so much that I rose my hands at the screen and wondered, “Really? Did they have to say that?” Overall these two criticisms I have with the film aren’t enough to detract it from its rail of greatness.

I’d recommend this movie to practically anybody who will not be easily triggered by hot-topic political issues addressed in the film. Other than that, if you wish to see a compelling, deep, and sharply-written tragicomedy, this is the film for you.

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