Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Reviewed by Paige Hally

  • Directed by Martin McDonagh
  • Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a divorced mother grieving the murder of her teenage daughter. Blaming the local police force for making no progress in the investigation, she rents three abandoned billboards and posts messages specifically directed at Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). In sequence, they read “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

The town instantly turns on Mildred and jumps to the defence Chief Willoughby, whom we are supposed to sympathise with partly because he has cancer and partly because we are told repeatedly that he is a “good guy”, although all the evidence we see points otherwise – such as Willoughby helping the racist, violent and incompetent cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell) keep his job.

Much of the film feels like a series barely connected scenes that serve no purpose other to create the impression of some vague satire or social commentary. Once particularly jarring scene is clearly designed solely to get some cheers from Hollywood leftists – Mildred comes home to find a priest who’s visited her to discourage her use of the billboards. This sets Mildred off on a rant about how just as gang members in Los Angeles can be punished for the crimes of other gang members, so should he be punishable for any act of child sexual abuse carried out by any other member of the Catholic Church. It’s one of many examples of lazy grandstanding throughout this messy, overhyped film.

The film was written and directed by Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh and the world he’s created often feels like the impression of Middle America an outsider might get from a tabloid talk show – people screaming obscenities at each other and committing violent crimes outside police stations and facing no consequences.

The violence, larger than life characters and attempted dark comedy is reminiscent of a Coen Brothers film such as Fargo, but fails to execute any of it in a satisfying way.

The use of Missouri in the title is likely designed to remind us of the recent riots in Ferguson, and the film does bring up race issues but, in the end, they don’t amount to anything more than some bad jokes and a questionable redemption story. There are references throughout the film to a recent incident where officer Dixon tortured an African American man in custody. When Mildred brings this up he says he doesn’t “torture n*****s. I torture people of color.”

However, despite seeing nothing but racism, violence and moronic incompetence from Dixon, by the end he’s become somewhat the hero of the film. The audience is supposed to accept his redemption arc, not based on anything we see on screen but based on the voiceover of a dead man who tells us that he’s not so bad deep down.

Other characters that occupy the world include Mildred’s son, her abusive ex-husband and his new airheaded 19-year old girlfriend – who is the butt of many jokes that fall flat – and Wilby, the advertiser who rents Mildred the billboards. In keeping with the theme of bizarre and undeserved redemption storylines, Mildred at one point gives her abusive ex-husband and his teenage girlfriend her blessing – and after he’s almost beaten to death by Dixon, Wilby gives him a peace offering for some reason, when they’re sharing a hospital room, for some reason. The strongest element of the film is the performances. Frances McDormand, in particular, although they’re all solid.

The illusion of satire or social commentary will mean that the lazy plot devices, poor characterisation and plot holes will be excused, but the film fails to make a point about anything or be more than a cheap imitation of a Coen Brothers film.

Paige Hally has a Masters in Media Arts and Production