Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Holy hell.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh has almost certainly reached the peak of his film making career with this film. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The three billboards in question have been rented by grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) to accuse the town sheriff, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) of not having made any progress on the case since her daughter was brutally raped and murdered. Willoughby isn’t terribly pleased, but he’s got more important things to worry about – namely, terminal cancer. So it’s his racist, hotheaded, cruel officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who takes up his cause, torturing anyone he suspects of having helped.

MV5BZmMyMTg1NzEtNWZiZi00OTczLTg0NzUtNzFlNjI5YjJkMzkxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_McDonagh uses lyrical language peppered with inspired cursewords; his heavy-weight cast punches it up with a surprising mixture of gravitas and black comedy.

Frances McDormand, national treasure, is of course fantastico. Wearing her ubiquitous coverall, she’s a no-nonsense woman who’s been through hell even before her daughter’s gruesome death. She is not without a softer side, though rarely seen. McDonagh gave her a couple of speeches that practically earned standing ovations at our screening. She walks a thin line between vengeance and justice but discovers she is not exempt herself. She’s got a terrific scene pitted against Willoughby that suggests these two have more history than we’re privy to. It’s a small town; there’s almost no vitriol without at least a measure of respect. As Willoughby, Harrelson once again reminds us he’s capable of almost anything. But, arguably, the man to watch is Sam Rockwell. He’s hateful, detestable, and yet we don’t quite hate him or detest him as we should. That’s sort of the miracle of McDonagh’s script – all of his characters are deeply flawed. Mildred is our protagonist but she’s no one’s hero. She makes too many mistakes. Dixon is all mistakes but for a small sliver of charm, and Rockwell exploits the hell out of it. He’s almost maniacal at times, and loads of fun to watch. Any time any of these power houses square off verbally, they’re shooting spitfire, and it’s even more entertaining to watch than a good old fashioned shoot out. And that’s not even mentioning a very capable stable of secondary characters that add dimensionality to the population of this small, insular town.

McDonagh’s world is not one of easy outs. It feels like he has asked himself – what would be most surprising here – and yet, despite a plot that constantly feels like it’s developing from the left field, it feels right.

I fully expect to see McDormand’s name on the Oscar ballot this year, in a race for Best Actress that’s already crowded (she’s the third name I’ve tossed out this festival alone). But Rockwell’s belongs there too – this is what Best Supporting aspires to be. Although conventionally shot, this is an extraordinary film, one I hope you’ll see and love when it comes out this November.

28 thoughts on “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

  1. Carrie Rubin

    Future filmmaker son has been asking me if you reviewed this one yet, so I’ll pass this post onto him. He’s heard good things about it, and it sounds like they’re merited. Great cast for sure. I look forward to seeing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jay Post author

      Oh I’m sticking up more than my thumbs – thank god you can’t see it. But wowza I’m still not over this one. And it’s festival season: we’re up to our armpits in movies!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Sean

    Great review! This was probably my favourite at Venice, slightly over The Shape of Water, if only because this one never takes the easy path, and you are totally right that you can’t help but like these characters despite their deep, deep flaws.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Birgit

    This sounds excellent and it all started with the writing. Sam Rockwell plays these characters so well and one can really despise his character so it will be great to see how one can make this person more whole


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  7. Snoskred

    I feel like this movie needs a sequel. How could they leave us hanging there, like that? I want to know what happens next! I want to see those two characters roam the world on endless road trips. 🙂

    This movie was by far the best thing I saw this year. I hope it wins all the awards. 🙂



  9. Manja Mexi Movie

    I’ve seen it just now. And I was loving it too, big time. It was promising to turn into my favourite of the last half year or so. I squealed and hissed and aaaahed at everything this magnificent cast was doing and howled at the turns and twists – but then came the last 10 minutes. I understand that America is flawed and has always been, it’s just showing it more openly right now, but please. Take your fucking guns and bury them all. Been pissing me off ever since Keanu in Matrix could have asked for anything, done anything. And then he says: “Guns. Lots of guns.”

    (Not you, of course. I got carried away. Sorry. Disappointed at the ending, so much. Was there an alternative ending first? Something doesn’t feel right.)


  10. allthingsthriller

    Wonderful review Jay. I finally watched this the other night. Loved it–but, wow!, the language! I felt like I was being cussed out. I knew I was going to like this–you’re going to think I’m terrible–when I laughed at the “raped while dying” billboard. Yikes. Appalled and delighted at the same time.


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