Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review — Hilarious, but problematic black comedy

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a bleak black comedy that boasts some of the best performances and writing of any movie this year.

“Raped while dying.”

“Still no arrests?”

“How come, Chief Willoughby?”

That is what is written on the titular billboards in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And while it seems like a simple targeted message, the entire small town of Ebbing is sure going to know about it. The reason Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) puts up these billboards — she pays the head of Ebbing Advertising Red (Caleb Landry Jones, wonderful here and earlier this year in Get Out) $5000 a month to erect her message — is because her teenage daughter Angela was raped, murdered, and burned seven months earlier. However, the case went cold and police stopped updating Mildred. It’s not for lack of trying, though. Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) reassures Mildred in one scene that they tried finding a DNA match to no avail and eventually reveals he has cancer. However, she continues her crusade saying, “they won’t be as effective after you croak.”

What Mildred is mad at isn’t the fact that the cops haven’t found the killer, but their complacency in the matter. She even goes as far as saying that they’re “too busy torturing black folks” to solve her daughter’s murder, a fact that is proven true when racist cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) mistakenly admits that he did torture a black citizen — he’s borderline incompetent. As other members of the town become involved including Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, who also did great work in Lady Bird), local James (Peter Dinklage), and her friend Denise (Amanda Warren).

Though Three Billboards starts off as a David versus Goliath story with Mildred pitted against Willoughby and the police department, it quickly becomes clear that there’s no good and bad in this story as morals are tested on all sides. Each scene feels like a scene of a play where two or three characters are simply talking through their situation. At one point a priest comes to visit Mildred to try and convince her to take the billboards down. She launches into an incredible monologue comparing the church to the gangs in L.A. before delivering one of the greatest mic drop lines of the year. Three Billboards gives an outlet for actors to play with these characters and they are performing to the cheap seats.

Though Three Billboards is steeped in a dry wit that will certainly earn laughs, the comedy is as pitch black as they come. Don’t be mistaken, this is a brutal movie at times, both physically and emotionally for the characters. Though it at times becomes whimsical in its storytelling, it’s rooted in a very real portrait of grief. Mildred is angry and she lets that inform her decisions for better or worse. However, Three Billboards is also a portrait, or microcosm, of a very specific sect of red state America where people say what’s on their minds even though they know word in a small town spreads like a wildfire. It’s an asset to McDonough, who writes dialogue that has to be spoken at a rapid-fire pace. It’s also evident that he has something to say about police and power and violence, specifically how one violent act leads to another before it spirals out of control. However, that message becomes muddled through the movie, which eventually knocks the final act off track.

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The movie’s core, though, is Frances McDormand. No actor is better at letting you in a character’s head but also keeping you out than McDormand. Mildred is unpredictable and brash and McDormand tackles her scenes at a level of intensity that pushes you to the edge of your seat whenever she is on screen. But what makes this a truly great performance is the moments that Mildred is contemplative. It may be a tilt of the head to the ground or the pursing of her lips, but either way, you’re hit with a wave of emotion. You understand what she’s thinking. You can almost read her mind. McDormand is astonishing. It is her best performance since Fargo, perhaps of her career.

That’s not to take away from the rest of the cast. This movie is an ensemble film and every actor gets their moment. Jones, Harrelson, and Hedges all do fantastic work, but the clear standout supporting player is Sam Rockwell. While Mildred stays fiery but broken throughout, Dixon goes on a full arc beginning in one place and ending up nowhere you’d expect. However, it tracks. McDonough is calculating where he takes Dixon and Rockwell is there to hit every single beat. He plays him as a one-note comic relief character that you truly despise. Not only for his actions but for the way that he carries himself. He’s the last character you’d expect to undergo a real solid development, but Rockwell convinces you that there is depth to Dixon, even when he seems hopeless.

However, therein lies the problem with the film. Rockwell’s character is given room to redeem himself, but there are some truly despicable things he does that aren’t addressed. On top of that, the black characters in the film are completely pushed to the periphery — the black man that Dixon tortured is never seen, Mildred’s friend and a good samaritan are given no development. Even Mildred’s daughter, who is the victim of the heinous crime, is a plot device. There never really is a commentary on race or sexual assault. It’s almost apolitical. Still, the film is well-made enough to be a perfectly good character study, but it is certainly problematic.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t an indictment of the complacency of police or anger-driven revenge. It doesn’t judge any of its characters, even though some of them do truly despicable things. McDonough mixes on-the-ground realism with a stinging black humor that makes the characters seem larger than life. But thanks to some incredible performances, no character seems outlandish. By the end, you understand them. Beneath the hilarity of it all or the bleakness of the situation, there’s real humanity in watching people navigate a hard time in life. The crime that the billboards are meant to bring attention to is not the center of the movie. Instead, it’s the people surrounding the crime that it is interested in. And I’d take a bleak character study over a crime thriller any day.

★★★½ out of 5

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