FilmColumbia: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a triumph for Frances McDormand

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By Saturday, Nov 4 Arts & Entertainment
Frances McDormand in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.' Image courtesy FilmColumbia. She plays the mother of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered.

Frances McDormand is a wonder in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” This is her finest work since her Academy Award turn in “Fargo.” But when is she not great?

She inhabits this role of Mildred Hayes, a mother who is desperate to find the rapist/murderer of her teenage daughter, as if it was written for her. And it was. Driving home one day, Mildred notices three decaying billboards. The idea to publicize the lack of attention to her daughter’s death is a compelling one that translates to these very controversial billboards: “RAPED AND MURDERED,” “STILL NO ARRESTS” and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”. It does attract local notice and helps to make this cold case much warmer, but that isn’t the whole story here – it is actually a meditation on loss, anger and redemption. The world is a complex place in this small Southern town.

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.’ Image courtesy FilmColumbia

The Anglo-Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh has written a fantastic movie here on his third outing as a film director (“In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths”). This is his most accomplished film yet. It opens with a mournful Irish song that sets the stage for this drama of wounded people and transgressive violence. Carter Burden’s score is wonderful and leads you masterfully through the somewhat comedic and brutal scenes (although I thought using the late, great Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” would have been brilliant!).

The young advertising man, Caleb Landry Jones (so vile as the racist brother in “Get Out”), accepts Hayes’ large down payment for these bright red, inflammatory billboards. He doesn’t see a problem at first. Immediately the town police become enraged with the insulting billboards. An excellent Woody Harrelson (Chief Willoughby) comes to Mildred’s house to explain that it is not lack of trying but lack of evidence that her daughter’s killer has not been found. Mildred has none of it and refuses to back down even when he tells her he is dying. As some of the town folk turn against her, Mildred becomes more violent and impervious to the effects of her anger. She is a woman on a mission and can not and will not be stopped.

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.’ Image courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

The casting is superb – McDonagh worked with several of the actors before in his previous film “Seven Psychopaths.” Abbie Cornish plays a very sympathetic wife to Chief Willoughby, Zeljko Ivanek is the rational police sergeant and Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”) is excellent as her grieving son. But without a doubt, Sam Rockwell – playing a racist, idiot cop – is the stand-out. At first you feel he has few redeeming qualities. He is violent and hateful but very loyal to the chief. His character has a huge arc and becomes literally changed by walking through fire. Humans are often viciously flawed but perhaps they can be redeemed. Understanding him and where his anger flows from is where McDonagh shows his compassion. His horrid mother (echoing the nasty harridan in his breakthrough play “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”) gives you some understanding of the origin of his out-of-control anger. When he becomes a partner in Mildred’s mission for retribution, all bets are off.

This treatise on humanity – damaged but capable of changing – won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is a great film and not to be missed.


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