Review – Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

My catch-up weekend concludes (though there is more catching up to be done at a later date) with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Written and directed by Michael McDonagh, Three Billboards tells the story of heartbroken mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) as she makes a very public challenge to local authorities to catch her daughter’s rapist/murderer after seven months go by without an arrest. Joining McDormand in the principal cast are Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby, Sam Rockwell as Deputy Dixon, and Caleb Landry Jones as Red.

I had heard much praise regarding Three Billboards, but sometimes a film can take one by surprise, no matter what or how much has been previously heard. This is one of those films. Obviously, just based on the brief premise that I outlined above, the film tackles some heavy topics, and while it does so with unabashed frankness and honesty, it also blankets the issues in much respect. The story is told as McDonagh wishes to tell it, warts and all, but it’s never exceedingly graphic or inconsiderate of the audience or, perhaps more importantly, its characters.

And those characters are irrepressibly memorable. McDormand’s Mildred is not a perfect person and she is not a perfect mother. Her bad habits and foul mouth are hallmarks of her personality. They rub off on her children. It’s possible she’s never smiled a smile of joy, amusement, or happiness in her entire life. But it’s all a charade. She cares deeply for people. She feels. She hurts. And she’s never hurt more than she is hurting when we meet her.

As she lights a metaphorical fire under the butts of the entire town of Ebbing, Missouri, her power and influence begin to manifest and spread. Discovering exactly how is the fun of the film, but Willoughby, Dixon, Red, and the rest are all there to rise to the challenge, just as the actors who portray them seem to be motivated by McDormand’s energy.

Harrelson plays within his comfort zone, but that doesn’t negate his unusually tender performance. Perhaps no one is better at playing a grade-A a-hole than Sam Rockwell, and he gets another opportunity to do that, here. Yet, there’s more going on with Dixon than is readily apparent on the surface. And this film is the first time I’ve actually enjoyed Caleb Landry Jones in anything, ever. When I saw his name on the cast list, I groaned. From my perspective, he tends to overact. In Three Billboards, however, he’s natural, relaxed, and even likable. I’ll take it.

Everyone shines because everyone – even those in smaller parts who I haven’t mentioned – are fortunate enough to be gifted with meaty roles. Each character is extraordinarily complex and, therefore, entirely believable. In the real world, we’re accustomed to thinking of good people as doing good things and bad people as doing bad things. But, sometimes (maybe more often than one would believe), good people do bad things and bad people do good things. There are greater consequences to that notion that the film addresses. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it that way. But the cast is game and more than carries their weight.

Having established that, complex characters are wasted if the rest of the film is pedestrian. Not to worry; Three Billboards is perhaps the most excruciatingly thought-out and developed film of 2017, so far. It’s also extremely topical, perhaps even more so than McDonagh and the rest of his crew could have imagined. Police brutality and the sexual harassment and assault of women are key topics that are addressed by the film, with the former being approached more directly than the latter.

And then there’s the ever-present issue of people peaceably taking a stand for what they believe in despite massive, high-ranking opposition. This is never an easy thing for one to do. The one (or ones) doing it never benefit personally. They sacrifice themselves for others – for the greater good. Mildred’s method for handling her problem in no way makes her life easier or better. But she has to try. How often do we hear self-made soothsayers proclaim, “Why try that? It won’t make a difference!” The answer: because if we don’t try – if we don’t even attempt to make things better – we lose our humanity. Mildred clings to her humanity in the face of overwhelming pressure to let it go for someone else’s benefit.

Yet amidst all of this, McDonagh never comes across as preachy, as though he’s attempting to make a statement. He simply presents small town America as it often is in many circles and allows the viewer to make a judgement call for themselves. And then, once that happens, he tosses a curve ball at the unsuspecting audience and asks them to think again.

There are actually a lot of curve balls in Three Billboards. Some are narrative. Some are character-based. Others are thematic. And then some are content-oriented. This may be surprising but Three Billboards is easily one of the funniest movies of the year. I laughed out loud multiple times throughout the duration of the film and I wasn’t alone as the others in the theater with me were joining in.

But that’s life. Life is complex. We laugh one moment and cry the next. And Three Billboards exuberantly represents the complexity of life. It also represents the beauty and power of filmmaking. Gripping from the beginning, Three Billboards forces the audience to look at life and at people from all angles and it does so in relentlessly entertaining fashion. This is the film I’ve been waiting for. The Oscar gauntlet has been thrown down. I can’t wait to see who steps up.

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