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December 3, 2017

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

by Franz Patrick


Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The plot of Martin McDonagh’s structurally elegant and emotionally honest “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” involves an unsolved case of a girl who was raped, murdered, and set on fire, but the story is no murder mystery. Instead, it is an exploration, perhaps even an exorcism, of the psychology of some members of the titular small town who are directly involved with the case that has reached a dead end. The characters we meet may not be entirely likable but it is required that they be interesting. McDonagh continues to create work that will stand the test of time. This time around, his work asks us to consider how we might respond in the face of great injustice—especially one that happens to us and our family.

The film is a perfect showcase for Frances McDormand’s astounding range. Playing Mildred, the mother of the deceased, the veteran performer makes it so easy to summon inconsolable rage and disarming vulnerability within a span of seconds. While it is not difficult to empathize with the character as is written on the page, who has grown tired and beyond frustrated for not hearing any progress regarding her daughter’s murder, there are numerous instances where the audience is challenged to stay behind the actions of the protagonist. Like those around Mildred, she is capable of unnecessary cruelty.

Given the character’s wit and intelligence, Mildred has a knack for sniffing out weaknesses, lies, and deceit. This character trait paves the way for exciting, dialogue-driven scenes where power can shift at a drop of a hat. There is build-up, stare downs, and silence which do not follow any sort of rhythm to prevent becoming predictable. Mildred is aware that what she is about to say or do to somebody will hurt deeply and yet she does it anyway so the person she is dealing with would feel a fraction of her pain and suffering. McDormand demands that you do not take your eyes off her because Mildred is a bomb waiting to go off.

It gets the feeling of a small town just right, from the humble but busy streets to the interior decor of gift shops, homes, and local police station. But the relationships among the residents is most intriguing. Take the relationship between Mildred and Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the latter being the lead investigator of the unsolved murder case. The two are constantly butting heads and yet look closer and notice there is mutual respect there. It just appears that respect may not be there all the time, especially when either gets so riled up that they see nothing but red.

Their common understanding is a great contrast when it comes to Mildred’s relationship with the other men in uniform (Sam Rockwell, Zeljko Ivanek) who consider the grieving mother’s decision to rent three abandoned billboards out in the highway as an affront or insult to who they are and what they do for the community. To them and others within the community, why couldn’t she just grieve in private like everyone else? Must the tragedy of their town be publicized constantly? Must everybody be reminded of the traumatic past?

While the material does not provide one glorified action scene, especially for a story that touches upon a murder, it is firecracker from start to finish. The characters are so fully realized that we learn about who they are and see them undergoing changes to the point where they become unpredictable. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” takes one left turn after another that it is near impossible not to be regaled by its mesmerizing dance.

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