Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh may not be a name that is familiar to mainstream audiences, but the British director has developed a cult following over the past decade. In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths consistently make the lists of fans around the world who love his work in the realm of dark comedy. With his current project, this esteemed writer/director focusses his talents on a dark tale in the heartland of America. He capitalises on the sight that is familiar to many, those random billboards outside of a small town and answers the question of who are the people who are willing to advertise on them.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has seen the three billboards that are outside Ebbing, Missouri for years since they are down the hill from her house. She had not noticed them until she had an idea to get a message out to the community and the local police department. Since the horrific death of her daughter, the grieving mother felt that Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his deputies had not done enough to catch the assailants. On each of the subsequent billboard, she placed the words, “Raped while dying”, “Still no arrests?”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Quickly word gets out in the close-knit community and causes a divide amongst the residents. Mildred and Sheriff Willoughby have to come to terms with the message and figure out how to deal with the reactions from the townsfolk, the press and the local law enforcement.

Anyone who grew up in this area of the world knows that it breeds a toughness and an unassuming wit that McDonagh taps into and even manages to ramp up in intensity. Staying within his preferred genre of the dark comedy, he goes further into the murky realm and goes light on humour. The majority of the writing and acting are exceptional, but there is very little to enjoy in this adventure in the Midwest.

The disturbingly captivating performances of the cast genuinely complement the famed director’s writing effort. Frances McDormand continues to be a tour de force in cinema. The Academy Award winner embodies the grieving, but tough as nails woman from middle America. The smouldering dominance she represents in every scene is powerful and exhausting to endure. Every moment they attempt to soften her on-screen persona, things get kicked to the curb, and she rushes back behind the tough exterior. This battle-ready character is hard-boiled because of the men surrounding her in the community and specifically on the police force. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell deliver award-winning work as the imperfect, but strangely likeable lawmen of Ebbing.

With the quality of writing, direction and acting, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri should be on everyone’s watch list in 2017, but two issues do not sit right about this film. McDonagh must not have spent too much time in the Midwest, because the excessive foul language seems to be a throwback to his other films. It does not deliver a realistic tone for the film, but seems to be added for mere shock value. Instead of being an honest reflection of the culture, he seems to be attempting to redefine it. This abuse of modern vernacular coupled with a less than satisfactory conclusion to this seemingly redemptive journey, causes the whole film to move from excellent to admirable. The cast deserves recognition for their work, but the overall experience becomes painful to stomach.

REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film? 

Where is the line between revenge and justice? Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri rides the fine line between revenge and justice. The vigilante efforts by Mildred Hayes are admirable but fail to bear the results that she desires. Even though she does say things about God and the church that are fair, but she misses the main message.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12:9

We need to pursue justice in the world for the wrongs that people commit against others and we should do all we can to motivate the law to do their work. Yet, within in it all, we need to understand that ultimate justice will be in the hands of God, the God of justice.

Definition of revenge: to exact punishment or expiation for a wrong on behalf of, especially in a resentful or vindictive spirit

Definition of justice: the administering of deserved punishment or reward or the maintenance or administration of what is just by law, as by judicial or other proceedings

Can you see the difference? Which of these do you seek when someone does you wrong?

Passages on revenge and justice: Leviticus 19:18, Romans 12:19, Isaiah 30:18, Psalm 37: 27-29

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Russell Matthews

Russell loves film and enjoys engaging in discussions about the latest cinema offerings and then connecting this with the Gospel. He has worked for City Bible Forum for over 10 years, is a reviewer for Insights Magazine and Entertainment Fuse and has a blog called Russelling Reviews. He moderates events for Reel Dialogue which connect the film industry with the general public.