Controversy for movies is weird for me; I usually find that it doesn’t connect with my opinions, but sometimes it strikes a chord. I think sometimes filmmakers do court controversy, but other times people just read into things or find problematic elements that were definitely not intended.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri comes from writer/director Martin McDonagh, and it’s a movie with a long and very self-descriptive title. But although it’s descriptive, it’s deceptive too, because the billboards reflect something very disturbing. In the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, local single mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has been waiting for any progress on the case of her murdered and raped teenage daughter several months earlier, but nothing seems to have happened.
So she pays a local billboard company run by Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) to put up three billboards outside the town with the large text messages of “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”. The local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), is very much respected by the town but is also suffering from terminal cancer. So there’s a lot of heat and harassment against Mildred and her efforts.
One of the main antagonists against her is local cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is a racist of the kind that doesn’t think he’s a racist, not really. But he is. His arc of hatred, destruction, pain, and attempts at redemption is one of the main storylines of the movie. Willoughby is an interesting character too, seemingly a decent man, but ultimately responsible for the actions of his officers. He is a family man and suffering as he is getting sicker.
Mildred has plenty of other dramas to worry about, including her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who has no personality to speak of, and her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), dating a much younger woman, is simply a bad person. And I shouldn’t forget Peter Dinklage as a local little person who is interested in Mildred. He’s always great.
The movie is a series of escalations on the part of everyone involved: Dixon getting increasingly angry at what he sees as unfair attacks on the chief, Mildred going further and further into criminality to take action, and the world seems to just move on. There’s a lot of angry thematic resonance about problematic police behavior and the way victims are treated.
There’s been talk about redemptive arcs and curing racism in the movie, but I think that misunderstands what happens. Although I’d need spoilers to explain why, maybe I’ll do that later. All that aside, it’s a very well made movie. I was surprised by how well paced and breezy it was, considering the heavy subject matter. It’s often quite funny and surprising.
The acting is truly next level, with amazing performances from Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson. Sure, perhaps some of the other characters get short shrift, and perhaps the movie intentionally teases at your perceptions, but for me, this is an Oscar-bait movie worth the hype.
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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a run time of 1 hour 55 minutes and is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.