McDormand Dazzles in Powerful Three Billboards over Ebbing

Directed by Martin McDonagh
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 115 minutes, R (very rough language)

I suggest over-sized posters of Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for every studio in Hollywood. Emblazon them with the tag line: "This is what a real actress looks like." Place the posters in prominent locations where fast-talking pitchmen trying to convince producers to green-light a piece of fluff starring the airhead of the moment must gaze upon McDormand's scowling, haggard countenance. If this doesn't make them go away, cue any scene from the film in which McDormand calls out phonies.

Frances McDormand is so astonishing in Three Billboards that the Oscars should be abolished if she doesn't win her second Best Actress award in March. Three Billboards is billed as a black comedy. Do not believe it. As Mildred Hayes, McDormand delivers amusing lines, but the humor is of the acerbic, sardonic variety. Mildred is a world weary, angry, and on a mission whose message appears against a blood red background plastered to three billboards:




Let's be plainspoken. No film about rape should ever, ever be tagged with the word "comedy." McDormand makes sure that you know this is a film about tragedy—in this case, the murder of her teenage daughter Angela, whose charred body revealed just enough evidence that coitus occurred as her life ebbed.

It's been seven months and, in Mildred's mind, the murder investigation hasn't been taken seriously in the good old boys' hangout that passes for Ebbing's police department. In fact, several of Ebbing's not-so-finest are known more for their harassment of local African Americans than for their homicide-detection skills. This is especially the case for dumb-as-a-rock mama's boy Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). If you've grown up in a small town, you know the type: a stick-a-badge-on-a fool-and-create-a-monster braggart who uses heavyweight physicality to command the respect that his lightweight intellect can't. The rest of the force is content to roll their eyes, cover for Jason, and try to keep a low profile. Sound like fodder for comedy, even a dark one?

The exception to all this is the man called out on the billboards, Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Moral ambiguity abounds in this film. Willoughby is one of the few people in the town who likes the salty Mildred, a single hell-raising mother whose remaining child, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), rockets between deep embarrassment over his mother's antics, his personal trauma over his sister's death, and his love/resentment of his sixty-something father (John Hawkes), who left Mildred to take up with a 19-year-old girlfriend. He also physically abused Mildred, whose response to this and her daughter's death is to develop an exterior so crusty you couldn't break through it with a backhoe. Her tongue-lashing of a local priest is hysterical, but in a "call bullshit" fashion. Welcome to the club, Father; Mildred doesn't ration expletives for anyone in Ebbing. She's damaged, poor, angry, and guilt-ridden. But is she too pissed off for her own good?

Willoughby is a case in point. He cares, but he has a deep burden of his own. Should one single out such a man just because he's in charge? Does this shake the tree, or foster so much local resentment that Mildred, not Angela, becomes the issue? Anger unleashed is hard to contain and perhaps Mildred—minus his racism—is more like Dixon than she knows. And let's not forget that our setting is a small town in which gossip, reputation, and strong opinions hold sway. 

Three Billboards is a cut above simplistic good-versus-bad films. Its purported Missouri setting commands pause in a post-Ferguson, post-Michael Brown age (though much if it was actually filmed in Asheville, North Carolina). Some have protested that punches were pulled in the film's depictions of race, though I'm inclined to give credit to director/writer Martin McDonagh for making it a subtext in the first place. There are situations in the film that, on the surface, could be viewed as comedic, including Mildred's salty putdowns and an encounter between her and James, a local dwarf (Peter Dinklage), but the humor label misses bigger points about the possible bonding of marginalized people. My sole complaint about the film is that redemption comes a bit too suddenly for several characters.

Whatever flaws lie in the script are covered by stellar performances. As noted, McDormand delivers an amazing performance that should cheer older actresses everywhere. (She is 60. Need I remind you of how few roles are written for women of her age?)

If we've not done so already, it's time to forget that Harrelson ever appeared in Cheers. He is a very good actor who long ago left Woody Boyd at the bar. In Three Billboards he delivers a compelling performance as a man with so much on his mind that it can only resolve in a single tragic way—and it's probably not how you expect. It's very hard to depict an ill-educated oaf, and Sam Rockwell is superb as Dixon. As for minor roles, Hollywood often skimps on these, but that's not the case for Hedges, Dinklage, and Hawkes.  Abbie Cornish has a small part as Willoughby's wife, but she does much with what she's given. Caleb Landry Jones also does a nice job as Red Welby, the head of a seedy advertising agency. He is quite convincing as a local who knows that not everyone in a position of authority deserves deference.  Give a shout out also to Sandy Martin, as Dixon's bigoted mother who doles out both genuine and controlling love in equal measure.

Black comedy? I don't think so. Drama isn't always about histrionics and big speeches. Sometimes drama is about pain masquerading as snark, marginalization disguised as backlash, and guilt posing as defiance. Three Billboards depicts such tragedies and one could do far worse than proclaim it the best film of 2017. One could debate this, but wrap that Oscar for Frances McDormand, a real actress in the age of fluff.

Rob Weir

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