Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri movie review: Frances McDormand delivers an Oscar-worthy performance

Written by Shalini Langer | New Delhi | Published: February 23, 2018 7:12 pm Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri movie review: The Oscar-nominated film stars Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri movie cast: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri movie director: Martin McDonagh
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri movie rating: 4 stars

In plain black on dark red, in brown squares against a scenic sky, in stark words scraping an empty road, the three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, are a mother’s accusing finger pointed right at a town’s heart. Questioning its certitudes, threatening its balance, calling out its silences.

In that simple idea, and its power to turn a town upside down, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, has a winner. He has another in Frances McDormand playing that mother, who carries the guilt of having failed her daughter in life and is ferociously determined to not do so in her death. Her Mildred Hayes is off-kilter, unstable, volatile, but crucially dangerous to everything in Ebbing, since she is no longer afraid to say all that others politely won’t. McDormand, an actor never given to exaggerations, is a picture of un-subdued grief here, her eyes vacant and haunting, her pain a gaping wound seeking to be filled.

Even Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri struggles to hold up a candle to the flames of that agony. Its best bet is Harrelson, playing Police Chief Willoughby, one directly questioned by Mildred in her billboards over the lack of any arrests in the rape and murder of her daughter — the crime having been perpetrated not necessarily in that order. Willoughby is a much-respected, much-liked police officer in Ebbing, and though the town doesn’t take kindly to Mildred’s attack on him, the two share a grudging admiration and familiarity, born of years of knowing each other, that is effectively and economically established.

Rockwell as Dixon, Willoughby’s deputy who is a racist, a homophobe, an ignoramus, and a cop who lives with his domineering mother, is almost a caricature, surviving it only because of Rockwell’s astonishing performance. Coming into his own after a long gap, the actor does a convincing job of showing where Dixon’s rage is coming from, and has picked up one of the Oscar nominations among the film’s seven (including acting nods for McDormand and Harrelson too).

While the other actors don’t have much to do, each one of them — even Mildred’s suffering teenage son, worn down by her campaign, and Dixon’s cynical mother — registers a mark. It’s the film itself that often meanders, ventures into tangents, and frequently goes off message.

It’s easy to imagine, for example, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as a feminist cry, of one woman railed against the system, and makes one wonder how things would have proceeded if a father had put up those billboards. However, all the other young women in the film are such ditsy creations that one is not sure. It’s easy to imagine, for example, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as questioning biases, of all kinds, against mothers who drink or abuse, against blacks, against gays, against any people who are different. However, it only ends up flailing gently at those, while reinforcing some of the stereotypes. It’s easy to imagine, for example, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as an exploration of what crime and justice do to a small town. However, in the way the film draws to its unsatisfactory, if highly probable, end, it chooses to leave Ebbing far behind.

Yet, there is no doubt that in putting a greying, foul-mouthed woman, in shapeless overalls and bandanas, in frazzled hair and cutting no slack, at the heart of this story of sort-of revenge, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has given McDormand the definitive words of this gone year: “This time, the chick ain’t losing.”

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