There have been plenty of superheroes, comedies and the usual holiday fare in theaters this winter. A big break and a breath of fresh air has arrived in cinemas with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
Well timed and painfully realistic, this film confronts the ramifications after the unthinkable happens to a family and a town. The incredible Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, the grieving mother of a young woman raped and murdered while walking into town one night, seven months before the beginning of the film. Hayes, increasingly frustrated and enraged by the lack of arrests or leads in her daughter’s case, decides to drastically take things into her own hands. Hayes posts bold and unflinchingly aggressive messages on three billboards on the outskirts of her hometown of Ebbing, Missouri, asking why the police department has been able to do so little in her daughter’s case.
The earnest Sheriff Willoughby, the focus of much of Hayes’ criticism, is played by the spot-on Woody Harrelson. Well-qualified and well-meaning, he represents much of the moral high ground missing in the other characters. Few of the characters on screen are truly endearing. Even Mildred Hayes is often off-putting in her fanatic focus for finding her daughter’s killer.
There is Officer Dixon, played by the indie dynamite Sam Rockwell, the bumbling and racist policeman repeatedly protected by Willoughby. Multiple references are made to his previous assault of a black man in police custody. Dixon constantly tries to pressure Hayes and others around her to take down the billboards, sometimes violently.
His and Hayes onscreen battles force you to question the role of the powerful in our society. When most of the town is more focused on preserving Willoughby’s reputation, their harassment of Hayes to take the billboards down strikes a bitter chord. Everyone who tries to get Hayes to take down the billboards seems more concerned with their Sheriff’s reputation than the plight of a mother trying to find her daughter’s murderer. In their society of hero worship, there is no tolerance of dissent. Sound familiar?
That plot would typically lead to an unrelentingly heavy and dark two-hour film, but Academy Award nominated director Martin McDonagh keeps “Billboards” from being anything but predictable. Much of what makes this such an exceptional movie is the several surprisingly hilarious comedic scenes that pop up throughout the film. Little of what actually goes on fits neatly into the murder-mystery category. Every character is so real in their actions that even though Mildred Hayes might be the toughest woman you’ve ever met, you might be tempted to do the same if you were in her shoes.
The beauty of this film is that from beginning to end, its characters are so relatable, so human. Hayes’ daughter whose murder is central to the plot is shown on screen only once and very briefly. Though her death is integral to the film, “Billboards” is totally focused on the reactions of others in its aftermath. McDormand absolutely soars as a real woman grappling with the life-altering, to-the-bone grief that has consumed her life. Yes, half of her head is shaved and most people might be more careful not to cuss out an entire police department, but her actions and her grief are those of any mother in her place.
There is no melodrama to be found in “Billboards,” and likewise, no tidy ending to be found either. This movie won’t leave you hopeful, but it is by no means a waste of time. “Billboards” addresses the real filth in this world and how humans in all their imperfections try to handle it. Raising the issues of guilt, corruption and the effects of mishandled power, “Billboards” is spot on for today’s world.
This is not a movie for the whole family. Given its mature subject matter, language and several violent scenes this movie is powerful and can be disturbing. You will laugh, you will cry, but most importantly you will have to think. Make time in this season of hustle and bustle to see “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” because there aren’t many like it.