‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’: A brilliant, dark comedy starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson

November 21, 2017 GMT

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’: A brilliant, dark comedy starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson

CLEVELAND, Ohio - I knew nothing of filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh’s latest directorial effort, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” until I was invited to a special screening of it. I accepted said invitation out of curiosity on account of the head-scratch-inducing title and the quality of his previous efforts, and am I glad that I did, because it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

As the title suggests, the film deals with three billboards outside the a fictional (seriously, don’t bother Googling it like I did) small town in Missouri, which seven months prior to the beginning of the movie was the location of the brutal rape and murder of a teenage girl.


The girl’s mother, Mildred, uses money she acquired selling her abusive ex-husband’s tractor trailer to buy space on three billboards along a back road near her country home to demand accountability from the Ebbing police department, specifically beloved Police Chief William Willoughby, which has been unable to solve the crime.

Despite the relative remoteness of the billboards - which haven’t seen use since the 1980s, when commuters started using a newly built highway - the messages immediately gain the attention of the town and everyone choses sides.

The description above might make “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” sound rather grim, but I promise you it’s the funniest movie you’ve ever seen about a human tragedy.

That won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with McDonagh, who wrote and directed a lesser-known 2008 gem entitled “In Bruges,” which follows an assassin who accidentally killed a child and somehow manages to squeeze the maximum amount of humor out of its dark premise.

He’s also the auteur behind the 2012 dark comedy “Seven Psychopaths.”

Those films benefit from McDonagh’s writing and directing style, which combine scintillating wit grounded by the flawed humanity of his characters.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” provides generous helpings of both, thanks in large part to the performances of acting veterans like a characteristically on point Frances McDormand (Mildred), along with Woody Harrelson (Chief Willoughby), Sam Rockwell (an incompetent and bigoted police officer), John Hawks (Mildred’s rage-prone ex-husband) and celebrated actor Peter Dinklage (a used car salesman enamored with Mildred).


Mildred is stubborn and unyielding, clashing frequently with Ebbing’s good-hearted (perhaps to a fault) chief of police. But the pair have a complicated relationship, with Mildred putting pressure on Willoughby one minute and then expressing sympathy with his cancer diagnosis the next. Willoughby, for his part, lets Mildred go after she uses injurious and unnecessary force to defend herself against the retribution of the town dentist.

Mildred’s relationship with her teenage son is equally complex, as she ignores his pleas to take the billboards down on the grounds that they remind him of the details of his sister’s brutal murder.

Mildred herself is hardly a model citizen and you certainly shouldn’t confuse this movie with a celebration of vigilantism.

The billboards might convince Willoughby to take another look at the rape and murder case, but they also divide the townsfolk and rain unintended consequences down on Mildred’s friends and family.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” demonstrates McDonagh’s mastery of characters who are both hopelessly imperfect and somehow sympathetic.

For example, police officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell) is a racist drunk who (allegedly) tortured a black suspect in prison and fostered mistrust of the police department among the town’s considerable minority population.

But he never gives up on the case of Mildred’s daughter and his dedication earns the admiration of the town’s highly-respected police chief despite his incompetence.

This is a movie with no real heroes or villains, as McDonagh goes out of his way to avoid lionizing his characters.

While the humor is pervasive, McDonagh successfully walks that delicate tightrope between entertaining his audience and not watering down the gruesome crime that set the story in motion.

And like the aforementioned works of McDonagh, “Three Billboards” often moves its story forward with unsanitized violence.

It’s more tasteful than your average torture porn flick, but that doesn’t mean it won’t make you cringe. This isn’t a movie to take your children to.

But the adults reading this should mark Nov 22 - the day “Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri” opens in Greater Cleveland” - on their calendars.