Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
By Jason Wiese
As I grew up, my mother always made a point to educate me about morality at any chance she got by using common and easily memorable phrases. Among them was “Two wrongs do not make a right.”
That is a lesson that has grown in significance to me considering recent events in which justice has been a hot topic of discussion (and no, I am not referring to the release of Justice League if such reassurance was needed), and it appears that no one can seem to agree on its definition. How does humanity perceive justice? How should one seek justice? But, above all, what is the consequence of how you choose to seek justice? These are questions that I have been asking myself for a while. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a darkly comic drama from writer-director Martin McDonagh, the answers are never made clear, but damn does it make you wish you did.
The film begins with middle-aged single mother Mildred Hayes (Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand) driving down the outer road that leads to her house near the titular small, Midwestern town. When she notices three blank billboards that appear to have been unused for decades, she takes this as an opportunity to publicly express her displeasure over the Ebbing police department’s inability to solve the rape and murder of her teenage daughter months earlier. The result is a war between Mildred and the local law enforcement and the entire town is taking sides.
McDormand, in her most incredible role in years, leads a magnificent cast, including a great Woody Harrelson as Ebbing Police Chief Willoughby, torn between wanting to help Mildred and wanting to punch her in the teeth at the same time. On the team that wants nothing more but to punch her in the teeth is Officer Dixon (flawlessly played by Sam Rockwell), whom Mildred accuses of being too busy walking in a drunken stupor or torturing innocent black people to do honest police work. Not picking teams, but certainly not happy about the situation is Mildred’s teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), whose angsty behavior never feels like a stereotypical trope, much like everything else in this film.
McDonagh’s screenplay never backs down from its firm, uncomfortable grip on reality. Even the frequent moments of humor feel just as authentic as its dark, deeply gut-wrenching material. Plot twists and shocking thrills come at you with an emotional sledgehammer to the soul and when you least expect it, a trick mostly like due to the due the ingenious pacing. The film takes its time to present its message without a single preach.
Three Billboards is easily among the top greatest films that I have seen this year. It is a fun comedy, it is a crippling drama, but, overall, it is some of the most powerful, thoughtful and timely storytelling that I have seen hit the screen in far too long.