“THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI” — 3½ stars — Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges; R (violence, language throughout and some sexual references); in general release
As “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” churns through its final act, you may find yourself thinking — on multiple occasions — “If this movie ends now, I will hate it for the rest of my life.”
Getting through Martin McDonagh’s film feels a bit like driving up a winding mountain road, unsure of whether you are going to discover a stunning vista or a plunge off a cliff.
These twists and turns are an outward reflection of the inner turmoil of the three characters at the core of the film, who continually wrestle against their darker natures to be better people. They are all sympathetic, and they are all despicable. All of them are reaching for hope.
Mildred (Frances McDormand) drives the film’s plot. She’s mourning the loss of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton), the victim of a brutal assault and murder that remains unsolved months after the fact. In frustration, Mildred purchases advertising space on three billboards outside of town and uses them to point a harsh, accusatory finger at the local police department.
Specifically, the billboards address the local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who hasn’t made any arrests in the case and has come to a dead end as far as the evidence goes. He unsuccessfully tries to explain this to Mildred, and we learn Willoughby is also dealing with problems of a more personal nature. The chief has pancreatic cancer, and he’s struggling to manage the time he has left with his young wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and his children.
The third member of this tragic trio is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an angry deputy who seems to embody the racist, redneck police stereotype that we see onscreen so often these days. Dixon’s reputation stems from having tortured a suspect in a past altercation, and his angst stems from the inferiority he feels since everyone knows he takes marching orders from his domineering mother.
Ebbing is the kind of town where everyone knows everyone, and as these characters and the people around them work their way through “Three Billboards,” McDonagh draws a harsh character sketch that keeps digging and twisting as he tries to pull the humanity out of his leads. Antagonists become friends, friends become antagonists and everyone gets bloodied along the way.
Good, real-life characters will give you reasons to love and hate them at the same time, but the principals of “Three Billboards” have a way of pushing those extremes. Even Mildred, who should be drawing from a limitless pool of goodwill, has a way of conducting herself and treating other people that makes her feel like the bad guy for much of the film.
Audiences who stick with “Three Billboards” will find themselves lurching back and forth as the plot steers its characters to places that feel tragic, searching and heartbreaking. ”Three Billboards” is not an easy movie to get through, but like life itself, it feels like a worthwhile journey by the time you emerge.
“Three Billboards” is also one of those films that uses violence in a way that feels more effective because it is brutal more than it is graphic. Thankfully, we are spared any depiction of Angela’s murder (though the discussion of it feels awful enough), but a pair of sequences that show Mildred and Dixon at the end of their respective ropes are disturbing in their own right.
At the same time, with perspective, it becomes clear that unlike many films, the violence and coarseness of "Three Billboards" have a purpose. McDonagh is searching for the humanity, the nobility, within his characters, and thankfully, though the journey is brutal, eventually we find it along with him.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual references; running time: 115 minutes.