Nov-27-2017

Reel Snippet – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Summary: Seven months ago in rural Ebbing, Wyoming, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) lost her daughter Angela to a horrific crime. Incensed by the slow police action — particularly when looking at the amount of African-American arrests on frivolous charges — she buys space on three billboards on a backroad to call out the police for their inaction. Of course, the timing is a bit awkward because police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has come down with a case of pancreatic cancer and this gesture doesn’t sit well with his friends, including a rather bigoted cop named Dixon (Sam Rockwell). But despite abuse hurled at her, her friends, and her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), Mildred will not bend, leading to a cascade of effects that will either bring her closure or more sleepless nights.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was quite the gut punch, hitting a number of emotional notes in rapid succession. It’s held together by an amazingly witty script that alternately had the audience laughing and shocked silent at most of the right times. I say most because there was a particular dramatic moment toward the middle that was so serious, it made a number of jokes that immediately followed feel inappropriately timed.

Let me make something clear: this story is not a whodunnit. It’s about grief, particularly about how it transforms both the mourners and the ones around them. This isn’t a new grief either, as the billboards say it has been seven months since Angela’s death. It’s this grief that moves the plot along through a myriad of causes and effects that affect everyone in this small town.

There are also no characters in this film who are 100% good or bad (with one exception), but they each have shades of both. Mildred’s grief didn’t make her cantankerous, she always had a bit of a nasty attitude, as evidenced in a heart wrenching scene where we see the last conversation between her and Angela (played in this single scene by Kathryn Newton). Dixon looks to be a stereotypical racist cop at first, but ends the movie with the most depth of all the characters. And heck, Sheriff Willoughby himself really is trying his best on this impossible case, but doesn’t show the greatest tact. It’s this mix of qualities that make the cast feel so real.

But throughout all the conflict and imperfect characters, there’s a strong sense of mutual respect between them. Even though Mildred and William feel slighted by each other, she’s genuinely concerned for him when he starts suffering from his cancer. Likewise, though Mildred and her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) are absolutely bitter towards each other, there’s a brief moment of understanding between them over the grief that’s so genuine, it hurts. Mildred eventually does something horrible, but is shocked and guilt-ridden when someone gets hurt because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite everything, these characters never lose their humanity.

This movie doesn’t have a politically correct script, but it makes sense that it doesn’t. Ebbing, Wyoming is not a very progressive place, so of course there are going to be some nasty slurs thrown around. But at the same time, the movie is quite progressive with many people of color (women included) and diverse backgrounds. Again, this makes the whole experience feel much more true to life.

What we’ve got here is a movie unlike any I’ve seen all year, full of ambiguity and dilemma that’s bound to have a lot of viewers talking for a while. Some people change, others don’t, and many situations appear much more confused than before. I do wish Peter Dinklage had a larger role, but that’s a nitpick against such a phenomenal experience. This is one of those few non-blockbuster movies that I plan on recommending to a lot of my friends and one I hope to have a long discussion with them about.

Fun Tidbit: The director, Martin McDonagh, had some alumni to work with. Abbie Cornish (Sheriff Willoughby’s wife Anne), Sam Rockwell, Zeljko Ivanek (the desk sergeant at the station), and Woody Harrelson all worked with McDonagh in his 2012 film Seven Psychopaths.


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