“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is an unusual title for a purposefully quirky flick. It features three peculiar stars, Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson and industry favorite Sam Rockwell. When Harrelson is billed as the straight man, you know the picture is really offbeat.
This movie doesn’t require a warped sense of humor, but it helps. It’s a dark, dramatic tragicomedy steeped in serious issues. The caricatures of small town mid-westerners are greatly in need of anger management. Oscar nominee Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) writes and directs in the spirit and tone of the Coen Brothers “Fargo” (1996).
Set in the small fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri (filmed near Ashville, NC), the curious musical score is out of context with the scenes, in order to effectively disorient the audience. A strong-willed woman, Mildred Hayes (McDormand), is grieving over the loss of her murdered teenage daughter. After several months of inaction, Mildred devises a plan to put the police back on the trail of the killer
Renting three billboards, her message vilifies respected Chief Willoughby (Harrelson). This bold, yet possibly misplaced anger sets off a series of actions and reactions. When Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), an immature mama’s boy with a penchant for violence gets involved, the battle between Mildred and the town is greatly intensified. The Chief calmly defends himself to Mildred, “I don’t think them billboards is very fair.”
Mildred replies, “My daughter Angela was murdered seven months ago. It seems to me the police are too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes!” The Chief realizes, “We’ve got a war on our hands.” Sure, there is a unique gratification to expressing oneself, but some people just don’t play fair and don’t consider how their actions affect other people.
The sharp and shocking dialog is delivered by well-intentioned, but foul-mouthed white trash from small town “Mizurra.” This is a fascinating character study of a woman’s willingness to throw away all she has for the sake of “justice.” Feeling her own level of guilt and culpability, there is dark comedy in the tragedy and deep tragedy in the comedy.
In passing, Mildred asks the Deputy, “How’s the N*gg*r torturing business today, Dixon?” Surprisingly to her, the townsfolk side with the cops. When Mildred suspects her dentist of fixing to instill some pain on her, she takes charge. Later, the Chief asks her, “You didn’t happen to drill a “little” hole in the dentist today, did you? The desk Sergeant releases her, “Ain’t got nothing to arrest you for.” Mildred retorts, “Not yet, you ain’t.”
The characters are so bizarre; they can be difficult to relate to and none are that likeable. Their reprehensible actions are nothing anyone we know, would do. Sure, they’re plain folk, but we hope nobody, even dysfunctional families, ever talk to each other with such vicious verbal assaults, even without the obscenities, and even when trying to be kind.
This is a serious drama depicting planned and unplanned consequences for specific actions. The sarcastic and sordid dialog is plentiful but low key. Yet, the actors are so commanding, the audience is fully engaged from beginning to end. We see the non-political social statement being delivered, but feel entertained, not lectured. The supporting cast includes Peter Drinklage, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek and John Hawkes.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a long 115 minutes and rated R for violence, language, and sexual references. McDonagh wrote the screenplay with Frances McDormand in mind. Given her age (58), she debated with husband Joel Coen about accepting the role of a teenage mother, until he ordered, “Just shut up and do it!”
When in pain, it can feel empowering to say and do hurtful things about people you don’t agree with. Just look at Facebook, talk radio and our political leaders. Attacks can be clever, profane and even profound, but anger consumes and destroys. Fortunately, the film also depicts compassion, contrition and decency. The message is best summarized by possibly the most dim-witted person in the cast, “Anger begets greater anger.”
Ron’s Rating: B+
Leigh’s Rating: D