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Film Review

“Three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”

12/6/2017

A fantastic dark comedy with great performances

“The more you keep a case in the public eye, the better your chances are at getting it solved.”

Whether or not you believe the quote, this does posit a rather interesting idea. What lengths would you go to ensure there’s justice for the victims of crime — especially if the victim was your child? Furthermore, when does civil disobedience cross the line to criminal mischief? While the law would happily provide this distinction, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” allows its audience members to decide for themselves as it pits a tough-as-nails mother against her small town, on her pursuit of justice — legally obtained or otherwise.

“It seems to me the police department is too busy torturin’ black folks to solve actual crime,” says Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose daughter, Angela, was brutally raped, murdered and set on fire. She offers this to a local TV reporter to explain why she plastered three billboards with questions about local police’s failure to catch her daughter’s killer.

“Raped While Dying”

“Still No Arrests?”

Ames Chamber

“How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

Like McDonagh’s last feature films — “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths” — “Three Billboards” is a dark comedy that focuses on questions of morality, particularly pertaining to the American justice system and the rights of the accused.

The town is very much on Hayes’ side when it comes to the fact that what happened to her daughter was deplorable and Hayes deserves to see justice, just as any mother would in this situation. However, the means of her justice (the accusatory billboards) aren’t seen as fair by her fellow townsmen who begin an unofficial “Blue Lives Matter” campaign to support their police chief, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The clash between Willoughby and Hayes is where we get to the crux of the debate between the rights of the accused and the victims. A sharp-witted back and forth between the chief and Hayes out on a swing-set masks the depth of this debate. In Hayes’ opinion, every man should have his DNA immediately put in a police database upon birth and whoever matches the DNA of the person who killed her daughter should be killed.

“There’s definitely civil rights laws against that,” Willoughby replied.

The limitations of following police procedure become clear when trying to solve some of these difficult cases where the evidence simply comes up short. What also becomes clear is that Willoughby, though profane and crotchety, also is one of the “good cops” with no history of racism or police brutality. As far as the town of Ebbing is concerned, he has made every effort to apprehend Angela Hayes’ rapist and murderer.

Willoughby’s ardent supporter is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a short-tempered cop who’s quick with his baton and rumored to have racist tendencies. While your first impression of the character is to believe all the rumors about him, Rockwell brings his charm and sincerity to what could be a rather unlikable character (his non-verbal mannerisms are simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny while giving an added depth to the character) and raises the question: Should people be defined by their worst action? While there’s no easy answer to this, Dixon’s journey is complex yet hopeful — all is far from forgiven, but the direction he’s going shows promise.

The entire movie is littered with great supporting performances from the likes of Peter Dinklage who pines for Hayes; her ex-husband played by John Hawk; and Caleb Jones, the young advertising man with his own qualms with the police. All of these great performances, combined with a stellar screenplay, create a fantastic dark comedy that seems for all intent and purpose like it should simply be dark. You are consistently laughing while also still emotionally involved with the very serious storyline. This is a fantastic movie with great performances that will have you talking well beyond the theater. ♦

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