As film fans, there’s always a handful of films that we allow to pass us by. This isn’t usually a comment on their quality or our willingness to enjoy them – sometimes, we’re just a little late to the party.
Despite being one of the most acclaimed films of recent years, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri somehow proved elusive. It’s a film known to be filled with impactful drama and incendiary social commentary, and it’s also a film that boasts a staggering amount of talent. Frances McDormand stars, with Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, and Peter Dinklage all appearing in supporting roles.
After beginning with a puzzling opening scene, the film’s story begins to come into focus with the reveal of the billboards. This is done through the perspective of Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) an ignorant and generally unpleasant member of Ebbing’s police force. The film itself focuses on Mildred Hayes (McDormand) as she wages a public war on her local police department after they fail to catch her daughter’s killer.
From the premise, it’s unsurprising that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an examination of the grief process and how guilt, blame, and pain can affect a person. It’s an idea both small and large, both broad and specific, and it’s something that Three Billboards achieves beautifully. By focusing on three vastly different characters, and then filtering their personalities through various lenses based on the people who surround them, it’s a film that makes its characters feel distinctly human and real.
However, Three Billboards is more than just a thoughtful examination of an emotional psychological process. It offers an element of suspense that it masterfully opts not to pay off – the film ends with the mystery unsolved, and that adds to Three Billboards‘ beautifully morbid realism. However, what is achieved is the reconciliation of two previous opposing characters (Mildred and Dixon), who each move on from their quest to pursue justice elsewhere.
Much of Three Billboards‘ power lies in its quiet realism. Though it’s dramatic and distinctly dark, there’s nothing unbelievable about its story – in fact, in many ways, it’s almost mundane – and that makes it not just an examination of grief, but a statement on the downfall of society as a whole. Not only are there people in the world who grapple with those thoughts and feelings every day, but their lives are also governed by the same sense of hopeless injustice that frustrates Mildred Hayes, and that makes McDormand’s character feel more like a folk hero than a grieving mother.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a cleverly written, beautifully shot, and masterfully told tale of grief, healing, and emotional scarring. There’s little more than can be said about it but that it’s filled with the sort of sad everyday courage of those who are forced to simply carry on, as well as the condemnation of those who refuse to acknowledge the extent of others’ pain. It’s far from an easy watch, but it provokes thought and emotion in a way that forces its audience to examine themselves, and it’s all brought to life by career-best performances from some of the finest actors in Hollywood.
Summary: Emotionally challenging, Three Billboards is a dark examination of how people attempt to process existential pain, and how society can be particularly unforgiving to those attempting to heal. It’s a starkly powerful film that refuses to relent even one iota, and it’s brilliantly acted by a stellar cast.
Highlights: Sam Rockwell’s performance is layered in such a way that he comes across as simultaneously despicable and sympathetic, and it thoroughly makes the film.