Mildred Hayes’s teenage daughter Angela was raped/murdered seven months prior to when the story starts, and mom (Frances McDormand) is ravenous for justice.
That’s “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.” What a strange movie title. Well, it’s a strange, demented, often hilarious, miserable story. But—light and laughter leak in. Ain’t that just like life? And considering its Midwestern setting, like John Mellencamp says: “Ain’t that America?”
Well, no. Maybe. Let it be immediately noted—this is a foreign filmmaker’s lensing of America; it might be a tad too twisted. Sure, life can be stranger than art, but “Three Billboards” might be a tiny bit stranger than life.
It’s a vociferous mother/daughter kitchen argument that kicks off everything: Daughter: “I hope I get raped!” (She didn’t get to use the family car.) Mom: “I hope you get raped too!”
And regardless of the fact that this is a blatantly caricaturistic example of the worst thing you could possibly say in anger, you think, “Well these things happen. And that’s definitely the all-time worst heap of guilt, ever. How will she handle it?”
The sheriff’s office is dragging its feet finding suspects, and mom Mildred, a modern-day frontierswoman (what Frances McDormand’s chiseled face, deep-set eyes, and superhero chin dimple portray so perfectly) starts making a giant stink.
Here’s how: From her porch, she can see three billboards, set up one after another, along a country road; the kind of archaic, in-your-face 1960s roadside advertising you don’t see anymore, except for maybe the 700 miles worth of “South of the Border” signage, heading to Daytona Beach for spring break.
How about rent the billboards, and, with three statements of haiku-like brevity—shout at the sheriff?
And so the billboards have the same effect as that curious Times Square subway poem “Commuter’s Lament”; each line spaced out ten yards apart: “Overslept [walk 10 yards], So tired [walk 10 yards]. If late, [walk 10 yards] Get fired. Why bother? Why the pain? Just go home. Do it again.”
It’s depressing. But it definitely gets people thinking. One of these billboards: “Still no arrests.”
However, the inhabitants of Ebbing, Missouri, though vividly familiar with Mildred’s loss don’t care for her accosting the chief of police thusly. Mildred’s not a pleasant person. He’s popular.
Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), an upstanding man who’s worked hard on the case, also just found out he has cancer. Can he catch a break? Mildred’s at the end of her rope; she doesn’t care about the end of his rope.
The finely nuanced acting happening between these two is why they call it A-list, especially his hurt look when he realizes she doesn’t care, and her sudden caring, when he unintentionally coughs blood on her face.
Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Willoughby’s second in command, is a momma’s boy who lives at home with momma, and occasionally brutalizes black prisoners. And while he’s been described as having a screw loose, it’s really more a matter of being an ill-raised fatherless boy who’s now got a gun and a badge to compensate for not being a man.
But this is the kind of town where Mildred knew him when he was a toddler; she’s taking none of his guff, and regularly shames his childhood stammer back into existence when he puffs his chest out too much and throws his weight around.
Dixon’s got the most dramatic character arc. Almost too much so. One thinks, “That borderline sociopathic cop developed that level of empathy and inward-reflective capability in that amount of time? Doubtful.” But it works; after all, when he’s 1) barely survived a Molotov-cocktail party, 2) got badly beaten in a brutal bar fight, and finally 3) had his badge and gun yanked by a new black boss—change can happen quickly. He might even eventually consider helping Mildred out.
Next up, Mildred’s got to deal with her snide, volatile ex-husband (John Hawkes), who’s dating a hilariously not bright (or educated) teenage bombshell (Samara Weaving). (Weaving’s stellar comedic timing and Australian heritage puts her in line to start challenging fellow Aussie megastar, Margot Robbie).
Lucas Hedges, as Mildred’s son Robbie, does his disenfranchised, sensitive, super-articulately sarcastic, son shtick. And Peter Dinklage takes one for the team, enduring the midget jokes as warm-hearted neighbor James, who comes to Mildred’s rescue; prevaricating an incipient relationship between the two of them, when she’s about to get police-nabbed for stirring up yet more trouble.
“Three Billboards” has elements of “Medea” (the Greek tragedy, not Tyler Perry’s “Madea”), and the entire premise is Shakespearean in scope, but it’s basically a celebration of the might of the archetypal wounded feminine; hell hath no fury like a woman scorned (even if only in her own mind) by the local police. Do not mess with the lioness with the dead cub.
The best example of this is when Mildred is paid a visit by the local priest (Nick Searcy), wanting, naturally, for her to tone it down around there. In a monologue that will henceforth be performed in every acting class and casting office from now till eternity, she cuts loose with an absolutely scathing priest-hypocrisy smackdown.
Who Tells a Better American Tale?
Sometimes foreigners tell our American stories better than we do; the prime example is “12 Years a Slave.” Like the hugely popular Jack Reacher books, by British author Lee Child, who also favors American Midwestern settings with “Blue Velvet” type-Gothic nastiness below the surface, Irish director Martin McDonagh has imagined a small town-USA setting, where the societal problems are the current American stew: sexual assault, sociopaths, racism, divorce, rebellious teens, and older men dating way-too young women.
But as mentioned, it’s perhaps too much of a foreigner fun-house mirror, with a distinct Coen brothers-wannabe feel to it, right down to the stalwart Coen bros actress (and Coen-bro wife) in the lead.
It could be accused of glorifying violence; this is definitely the blackest farce to come down the pike in a while. Then again, how many mass shootings have we just had recently? America’s a violent place. Maybe it just hits too close to home. Maybe that’s why this movie’s packing ’em in; “Three Billboards” is currently 94 percent/96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
It might also be packing them in because funniness is healing. Black humor is the only way cops, firemen, EMT’s, and military personnel can take things lightly and survive their jobs, after all.
Ultimately, we love to hear exquisitely told tales, to learn how other people handle life’s messes—we’re always looking for coping clues. Despite the obscure title, “Three Billboards” is well-told tale indeed.
Film Review: ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’
Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Samara Weaving
Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Rated: R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references
Release Date: Nov. 10
Rated 4.5 stars out of 5