Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The late American writer H. L. Mencken is quoted as saying, “Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.” For Mildred Hayes (Oscar winner Frances McDormand, FARGO), the opposite is true. It’s been seven months since her daughter was found raped and murdered in this small town but no one has ever been arrested or even brought in for questioning. Now, Mildred has simply had enough and she decides to rent three billboards sitting next to a rarely used stretch of road outside her town to shame Sheriff William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, THE GLASS CASTLE; WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES) into reopening the case. Ebbing, however, is a town without pity and the folks there would rather Mildred let things go. They like their sheriff and they don’t like it that she’s embarrassed him in such a public way. This puts fiery Mildred on a collision course with nearly everyone in Ebbing including Willoughby’s racist second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, MR. RIGHT), Father Montgomery, her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes, TV’s DEADWOOD), and even her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA). Mildred, though, is taking no prisoners in her quest for justice.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES; SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS) hasn’t made many films in his career but what he has made have been cracking good. His first film, a short entitled SIX SHOOTER, won him an Oscar for Best Short Film, Live Action. THREE BILLBOARDS is no exception with its tight story, sharp dialogue, brilliant camerawork and stellar performances all around. McDonagh is a filmmaker who likes to work with the same actors over again and it seems to be working well for him. Rockwell, Harrelson and Abbie Cornish (who plays Willoughby’s wife) all appeared in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, while Zeljko Ivanek (who plays the Desk Sergeant) appeared in IN BRUGES. McDormand is fabulous here as the tough-as-nails Mildred. She doesn’t have to say much because her eyes and facial expressions speak volumes. This is her best performance since FARGO (21 years ago!). A few weeks ago she copped the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. Expect to see her get an Oscar nomination next week and possibly take home the statuette too. If she does, it will be well-deserved.

There has been a lot of social media chatter about Sam Rockwell’s character and the fact that he won a Golden Globe for playing a racist. These people have trouble separating the actor from the character. Just because Rockwell is playing a racist, it doesn’t make him a racist, nor does the award celebrate or normalise racism, as many of these self-proclaimed pundits have tweeted in recent days. Rod Steiger won an Oscar for playing a racist cop in the film, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, and he certainly wasn’t a racist. That being said, THREE BILLBOARDS pulls no punches when it comes to Officer Dixon’s feelings towards “persons of color”, as he calls them. There are a number of times throughout the film when you will be – or you should be – picking your jaw up off the floor because of what Dixon says or does. Perhaps McDonagh is making a comment about Trump’s America or just America in general. Both racism and discrimination exist in 2017 and they are still widely accepted. The fictional town of Ebbing is just a representation of Anytown, USA.

This is one of the best films I’ve seen this year and it will probably win a few more awards before the season ends in March with the Oscars. For me, the film loses points with its ending. Thankfully, the story doesn’t go where it looks like it’s going to go but the fact that it almost goes there really bothered me. I would have liked to have seen something different, especially in light of what Mildred’s ex-husband tells her at the restaurant. I was also disappointed that Abbie Cornish failed to cover up her Australian accent. One could argue that it’s possible for Willoughby to marry an Australian but Ebbing is a very small town in the middle of nowhere and the chance of that happening is low. Those things aside, I generally loved the film and loved the performances. Go see it!

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, January 18th at 8:30 am HK time!

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