By Nick Boyd
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a very dark drama starring Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby, and Sam Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon. It is about a vengeful mother played quite well by McDormand, who is set on shaming the police force in her town for not solving her daughter’s rape and murder, which occurred months earlier. She does this by posting three large billboards.
Right away, the townsfolk are against her and she gets a lecture from the local priest about how she is not going about things the right way. The scene with the priest clearly shows that Mildred is a very determined, stubborn woman. McDormand plays her as someone who is fairly unlikeable and hard-edged, not out to really gain our sympathy.
Her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, from “Lady Bird”) is someone we do sympathize with. Dealing with his sister’s death and his parent’s separation, he now faces bullying at school as a result of the billboards his mom put up. Hedges gives an understated, good performance, as the son who tries to reason with his mom in this time of despair.
Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby gradually reveals layers to his character in a performance that builds in power. A family man who cares about others and ultimately wants the best for them, Willoughby finds himself in the middle of the billboard situation, along with a personal health matter.
The most hard to pin down character, aside from Mildred, is Officer Dixon, in an interesting performance by Sam Rockwell, who specializes in playing characters who have offbeat personalities. Racist and abrasive in demeanor, he and Mildred are both more similar than either character would probably care to admit.
The movie had multiple contrivances/over-the-top scenes that brought it down. I found the ending to be arbitrary and not particularly satisfying in how it played out. When a character in the movie is on fire, another just happens to be nearby to administer aid to him. The operatic music playing when a fire is underway came across as overbearing. In a bar when someone overhears key details that could be advantageous, it seemed too convenient he would have just happened to have been there to find out that vital information. As Mildred is driving by and comes across a sight that horrifies her, it seemed farfetched she would conveniently have had fire extinguishers in her car. When Mildred commits a horrible act near the end, it makes her character almost unredeemable. When Officer Dixon threw someone out the window and seriously injured the individual in the process, the scene played out as sadistic. His over-the-top behavior in that scene did not work for me. There was a scene in a dentist’s office that was very hard to stomach, though not for reasons one might think. It came across as gratuitous.
Nonetheless, the film definitely holds your interest and is unpredictable in how the narrative plays out. The feeling is akin to being on a good, albeit bumpy rollercoaster ride. What stayed with me was how the movie effectively evokes a small town feel in its look and dialogue.