'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' Film Review
by Will Lindus
While sexual assault has been a hideous and insidious part of society since, well, since forever, 2017 has really shined a spotlight on its pervasiveness. This year, we’ve seen the empowering yet harrowing #metoo campaign, which reminded us that a strong majority of women have been subjected to some degree of sexual assault in their lives. There have also been countless Hollywood and Capitol Hill sexual assault scandals which have bubbled to the surface; powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Judge Roy Moore, and countless others have been called to task for unwanted and inappropriate acts they have committed against women and against minors. It’s been messy and it’s been uncomfortable, but the undercurrent - the attempt to dismantle institutionalized rape culture - has been the one positive outcome to arise from this dumpster fire of year.
Set against this climate, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is perhaps the perfect film to encapsulate where we’ve been and where we are heading as a society. The film stars Frances McDormand (Fargo, Mississippi Burning, Almost Famous) as Mildred, a woman in a small town whose daughter was recently raped and murdered. Frustrated by the fact that no progress has been made in apprehending a suspect, Mildred commissions three billboards right outside of city limits to challenge the police chief, Chief Willoughby, to bring the perpetrators to justice. This event causes ripples to radiate across the town, with citizens choosing to either side with Mildred or pillory her, as the stakes continue to escalate in this socially conscious darkly comedic drama.
McDormand is the lifeblood that courses through this film, portraying a character that has every right to be hurt and to be caustic, and whose actions challenge you to constantly recalibrate your moral center. Her cause is just, but her tactics are sometimes dubious. When she’s angry, you feel her wrath. When she exposes her vulnerabilities, you feel her heartache. She is, at the same time, a fucked up mess and a hardened fighter, which speaks so beautifully to McDormand’s talents as an actress and writer / director Martin McDonagh’s understanding of the gravity of this subject matter. For a film that explores how the effects of sexual assault can be both personally devastating as well as radiate across the lives of those adjacent to the act, this specific performance and this specific tone were meticulously chosen and perfectly realized.
Set against Mildred are two adversaries, both members of the local police force. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a kind man with an even heart, who understands Mildred’s pain but who feels as though his hands are tied with the lack of evidence available him. Despite his own illness, he serves as a worthy opponent to Mildred; both respect one another though they disagree on Mildred’s use of the billboards to stir up the town. Harrelson has a reputation for being primarily a comedic actor, despite some of his more dramatic roles, but this might just be his finest performance to date. Also set opposite to Mildred is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist alcoholic who takes pleasure in aggressive outbursts. Rockwall’s Dixon comes across as an incredibly one-note villain… until he doesn’t. Complex and nuanced, Dixon’s arc through the film is a fascinating one, and his interactions with Mildred provide some of the most tense, engaging scenes in the film.
Bottom Line: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is very much a film of the now, an important film that tells an important story in a very entertaining way. It will likely receive several awards nominations this year, and will likely pull in a few wins as well, and each of these will be well-deserved. This film is filled with triggers for those that have been impacted by rape and sexual assault, so that is important to note, but it is also filled with righteous indignation and with the search for catharsis, all executed via a top-notch script and pitch perfect performances.
4.5 out of 5 Bear Paws