Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Looking for redemption

The first time I viewed the trailer for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, I felt as if I had pretty much seen the whole movie. The trailer projects the film to be a revenge story of an angry mother looking for justice, featuring a stalwart performance by Frances McDormand that would propel her to her second Oscar win.

Frustrated by the lack of progress in the case to find her daughter’s killer, Hayes buys a year’s worth of advertising on three billboards on the outskirts of town.

McDormand will win the award again this year—that much is true. If I were to bet whether she wins the Oscar or if it rains this week in the Pacific Northwest rainy season, my money is on McDormand. The movie itself, however, is less predictable than it first appears. What starts as a revenge story ends up as a multi-layered story of troubled characters looking for redemption.

 McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, who has grieved her teenage daughter’s death for seven months. Frustrated by the lack of progress in the case to find her daughter’s killer, Hayes buys a year’s worth of advertising on three billboards on the outskirts of town. The billboards ask sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why there has been no progress.

The signs gain publicity, and Hayes soon finds herself the contempt of the town and the police department, especially deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Willoughby’s bout with pancreatic cancer serves as a catalyst for Dixon’s rage, but Willoughby himself tries to maintain diplomacy. As the story unfolds, the film’s main characters take turns making questionable decisions that lead to reactive questionable decisions from those around them.

While the movie sets up Hayes as a sympathetic figure being denied by an oppressive authority, writer/director Martin McDonagh (known previously for his debut 2008 film, In Bruges) continually pulls the emotional rug from under the audience to create an unpredictable last half of the movie that toggles between revenge and forgiveness.

Three Billboards is uncomfortable to watch throughout much of the movie, but McDonagh’s exploration of his characters makes this a worthwhile viewing and a movie that I thought about for days after. The characters evolve, but they can never completely compensate for their biggest flaws. This creates quite a conundrum for the viewer and a lot of seat squirming for this reviewer.

The actors play these flawed characters with aplomb. McDormand already won best actress at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes before nabbing an Oscar nomination this week. Rockwell followed suit in the supporting actor category, and Harrelson was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor as well.

The combined cast won the best ensemble category at the SAG Awards last weekend, and the film features underappreciated character actors John Hawkes and Zeljko Ivanek. Lucas Hedges, a best actor nominee last year for Manchester by the Sea, also stars as Hayes’s son. After Manchester and Three Billboards, I only half-jokingly say I would love to see Hedges play the lead in a lighthearted, innocuous romantic comedy with little substance, just so he doesn’t become depressed by association in super-intense movies.

Despite its acting prowess, Three Billboards is guilty, however, of underusing the always-great Peter Dinklage, whose skills are relegated to three brief scenes. Without giving too much away, another misstep involves the ending, which feels abrupt and leaves too much unfinished business, especially in regards to Dixon’s character.

In the current Hollywood climate of predictability and the current political climate of making reactive assumptions, Three Billboards stands as a refreshing alternative to both. It proves that you can’t assume people will react as you think—or as you want them to. And it proves that you can’t judge a movie by its trailer.


3 out of 4 stars. Rated R for violence, language, and intense subject matter. Three Billboards was nominated this week for seven Academy Awards, including best picture. I completed my top 10 of the year before I saw this movie; I would add it to the list. Also, my parents read these reviews but I am going to start having a separate ending section for them, as just because I like a movie, it does not mean they will. So, Mom and Dad: No.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.