OnScreen Review: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

“All this anger, man, Penelope said to me the other day, ‘It just begets greater anger,’ you know? It’s true.”

“Penelope said ‘begets’?”

Living where you have to drive 30 minutes to get anywhere can be pain. Sometimes, though, it can be a benefit. Sometimes it’s good to have the time to sit and ponder while driving. After getting out of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri the other night, I decided against putting on a podcast to pass the time and instead just sat with the film fresh in my mind while I drove home. Martin McDonagh’s latest is one that deserved some pondering over because it is not an easy film and I kept coming back to the exchange at the top of this review.

I have been eagerly anticipating Three Billboards all year; it came in at #5 on my most anticipated list back in January. McDonagh’s darkly funny debut film, In Bruges, is one of my favorite films this century and his follow-up, Seven Psyhcopaths, is also dark and twisted and funny. McDonagh blends the comedic with the dark in a way that most directors would not be comfortable with. Consider the twist in In Bruges where we find out what led to Ray and Ken being in Bruges in the first place. McDonagh has deftly balanced the light and the dark in his previous films. Three Billboards was the first time when I wondered to myself if the balance was off.

Frances McDormand stars in the film as Mildred Hayes, a woman whose teenage daughter was brutally raped and murdered months ago. After the case has gone cold and no suspect has been found, Mildred rents three billboards challenging the local police, in particular Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), as to why there has been no progress. Willoughby, while sympathetic to Mildred’s situation, is nonetheless perturbed by the manner she is expressing her frustration. The billboards make Mildred a divisive figure and infuriate members of the police force, most notably Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an officer who is a drunken mama’s boy with anger issues that Willoughby constantly has to reign in because he is so easily provoked.

Two themes stuck out to me as I was driving home from seeing this film and trying to decide whether I liked it. The first is exemplified by the quote I opened with, of anger begetting greater anger. It’s a comedic moment in the film as Mildred is on a dinner date when her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) walks in with his extremely younger girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving). Penelope, as demonstrated earlier in the film is not the brightest of bulbs, so the fact that she said ‘begets’ leads Mildred’s date James (Peter Dinklage) to question the validity of what Charlie is saying, which leads to an even funnier payoff shortly thereafter. But the quote itself, that anger begets greater anger, stuck with me.

Mildred’s daughter was brutally killed. Her grief and her guilt have morphed into anger and it has consumed her. It is practically all she has time for, even to the detriment of her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who finds out about the billboards after the fact and their continued existence is a strain on their relationship. Her inability to move on is possibly costing her the relationship she has with her son, because she doesn’t seem to have room for it. Maybe because it was because Lucas Hedges appears in both films, but the inability to move on reminded me a lot of last year’s Manchester by the Sea, only the end result of tragedy in that film is that the main character is broken. But in a way, so is Mildred. Like Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, she apparently can’t beat it. She can’t live with the injustice of it. And she’s blinded by it.

Her anger begets more anger. People in the town hold Willoughby in high esteem, so her billboards ruffle feathers. This leads to a confrontation with her dentist that concludes with a hole in this finger. Dixon views Willoughby as a father figure and takes matters into his own hands, initially threatening the man who rented to billboards to Mildred, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), before further escalating the situation with Red and others in an attempt to put indirect pressure on Mildred to take down the billboards. Halfway through the film, someone burns the three billboards which leads to a further, misdirected escalation by Mildred.

The other recurring theme I picked up on was fire. The body of Mildred’s daughter was burned after she was killed. The billboards are set on fire. At one point, Molotov cocktails are hurled at the police station and a character is surrounded by flames. When Mildred is desperately trying to extinguish the flames on the billboards, she climbs up one to try to put out the fire, standing above the flames as her message is consumed by fire. I think the fire perfectly illustrates how consuming the anger is that Mildred, Dixon, and others have. It’s only when a note of grace is delivered from Willoughby to both Mildred and Dixon that their burning anger is tempered in any way and represents a turning point in the story. By the end, though, the film ends on ambiguous ending where viewers are left wondering how long that will last, whether anything has changed for them, or if their apparent change is misguided.

McDormand gives one of the finest performances in a career full of fine performances. Harrelson and Rockwell, who both previously collaborated with McDonagh in Seven Psychopaths, are their typically great selves. In addition to Hawkes, Hedges, Dinklage, Jones, and Weaving (who may have been my favorite bit character), Abbie Cornish also has a supporting role as Mrs. Willoughby, while Clarke Peters and Zeljko Ivanek also have supporting roles as police officers.

Ultimately, I ended up liking Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri more than I did initially leaving the theater, but slightly less than I hoped to walking into the theater when I quietly harbored hopes it could be my favorite film of the year. While I walked out torn on the film, I’ve come around to it the more I’ve thought about it. Some films have storybook endings where good triumphs over evil and there is a clear-cut protagonist and antagonist. But some films are ambiguous and the characters have shades of grey, and serves as a cautionary tale of what happens if you go too far down a particular path. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a great cautionary tale about the dangers of being consumed by the fire of anger, even if it is anger rooted in grief, and how all-consuming that fire can be if unchecked.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars