“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is exceptional

Given Hollywood’s tendency to recycle characters and stories for films, it is always refreshing when directors focus on originality. Writer, producer and director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri exemplifies this perfectly. The movie tells the story of a grieving mother who rents three abandoned billboards outside her hometown to attract the attention of the local police department and incite it to continue investigating her daughter’s violent murder — a concept so oddly specific it makes me wonder how McDonagh even came up with this idea and pitched it to Fox Searchlight.

Frances McDormand, in the lead role of the divorced single mother Mildred Hayes, carries the movie and delivers a stellar performance that puts her ahead in the running for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. She appears mostly stoic and seems to only express feelings of anger and gloominess. However, through her subtle expressions and the intricacy of her line delivery, she effortlessly communicates her character’s crankiness, wittiness and pain. These qualities are important in an actress portraying Hayes, who must display a strong sense of determination in eliciting attention from the police despite countless roadblocks that hinder her from reaching her goal.

Although the cast is large, McDonagh displays directorial intuition in deciding when to include characters in scenes so that none of their roles become overused or tiresome. In some ways, Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of police chief William Willoughby is just a characterized version of his real-life persona. But unlike most characterized performances, he pairs his own personality with strong, but subtle expressions of concern and wit  that are characteristic of Willoughby.

As police officer Jason Dixon, Sam Rockwell uses his mannerisms in his nuanced body movements and facial expressions to bring the character to life. The snide cop undergoes an unexpected arc that contributes greatly to the film; with the way the film establishes his controversial character, certain choices made for his story are bound to catch audience members off guard. 

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a divorced single mother who wants to catch her daughter’s killer, and stars opposite Woody Harrelson, who portrays police chief William Willoughby in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo from IMDB

The acting, overall, is so excellent that even the extras are as compelling as the main characters. Sandy Martin, in particular, stuns in her role as Dixon’s mother. The interactions between all these characters are very strong, bolstered by McDonagh’s standout screenplay. With the exception of one slightly cheesy line, the dialogue flows just as naturally as the actors’ performances. The jokes in the script are seamless, as they blend into the scenes in which they are used and work well in the context of the film. The movie doesn’t lose its pace and some jokes are timed perfectly to create the intended effect. The rest of the dialogue forces viewers to involve themselves with the characters, as tensions between Hayes and the police slowly but steadily escalate.

However, this isn’t the screenplay’s only strong suit. The film does not rush to reveal all the information as soon as possible;  rather, it integrates information in a way that flows well with the film’s rhythm and easily clarifies any doubts that the audience may have. Every plot point that could be perceived as cliche is either completely subverted or presented in a way that makes it feel less blatant and trite. Audiences will have an initial expectation of how the film will turn out, but then it will take them in the completely opposite direction, suddenly leaving them lost and more curious as to how the situation will play out. There are moments in which you will hope for one outcome, even though the film has no desire to provide a happy ending. Everything that happens is not only necessary for the plot but also fits with the film’s grim, yet comedic tone.

I didn’t know what to think of this film when I saw the insanely positive reception it picked up; part of me was skeptical that this film would not live up to the extreme praise. The minor flaws in this film were so few and far between that they could be passed off as tolerable annoyances, but the rest of the film was so strong that pinpointing these issues seems almost trivial. Apart from the concept, there was little to indicate that McDonagh’s third film would be one to stand the test of time. However, there’s really no other way around it — Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is truly a masterpiece.