Originally from Michigan but educated in the south by the Savannah College of Art and Design, Jacob Ethington is a playwright and screenwriter who's always willing to relocate if necessary. Excerpts of his work are available to read on this site along with blog posts about media that he loves.

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017) Review

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017) Review

Before I write a post, I put tags at the bottom of each, one for the title of the film, one for the director, one for the genre, and one for the type of post, whether it's a review or an appreciation. I really struggled to classify Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri when it came time to tag it with a genre. I ended up settling on the simple tag of "drama," just to make it easy for myself. I thought about calling it a dark comedy, but...

It just isn't.

There's dark humor throughout, but it's less an overall descriptor of the film's genre and more of a coping mechanism. If the humor wasn't there, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri would be almost unwatchable. Not because it's bad (I'll tell you up front that it's great), but because it escalates into a full blown nightmare of pure rage. That much might seem obvious from a film that starts with a mother erecting billboards against the local chief of police for not solving the brutal rape and murder of her daughter, but believe me.

It gets so much worse from there.

The mother in question, Mildred, is played perfectly by Frances McDormand. It's the kind of performance that reminds you exactly why McDormand already has an Academy Award for Best Actress under her belt, and it makes you wonder if she's about to add a second Academy Award with her performance here. She's that good.

What makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feel miraculous though is how incredible damn near every actor in the film is. Woody Harrelson plays Willoughby, the local police chief, with the sort of restraint he hasn't had in a while. He has his outburst moments, but they feel earned. I could spend whole paragraphs on each supporting actor and actress for a while if I wanted to, from Caleb Landry Jones performance as the owner of the billboards business to Peter Dinklage as a local who has affection for Mildred. The real standout of these supporting actors though is Sam Rockwell as Dixon, a deputy on the police force.

Dixon is a walking nightmare of a human being, the kind of man that acts as an unfortunately realistic caricature of chaos itself. And the fact that the story almost finds a way to redeem him is one of its most difficult challenges, one that I'm still in awe of.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri definitely has one of the year's best screenplays. The writer and director of the film, Martin McDonagh, started as a playwright and his masterful control of careful character dynamics and dialogue could tell you that much. What's truly stunning is just how great he is at staging actors as a filmmaker. His previous films looked nice enough (those films being In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths), but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is really gorgeous to look at. There's a long take in this movie that might not be as complex as something you'd see in a film like Children of Men, Hard Boiled, or other famous long takes, but feels stunning in its confident (and horrifying) execution.

I can't stress enough though, this film goes to incredibly dark places. For all the marketing that has tried to bill this as a dark comedy, that notion flies out the window fast enough. An early flashback scene where Mildred remembers the last time she saw her daughter is one of the most emotionally wrenching things I've seen in a movie all year. And it happens well before the film is even halfway done. Again, there is humor to defuse some of the film's tension, but not even close to all of it. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri begins to feel like a trip through Hell as various characters' sins pile up all around them.

It's almost unfortunate how great McDonagh is as a writer. You see, for a movie with this much misery to actually work, you have to care about the characters. Not just on a superficial level mind you, but at the level that you can start to feel in the pit of your stomach. It's easy to feel bad for a mother whose daughter was raped and killed, but to leave it just at that is to short change your audience. A character's misery can't just be for misery's sake. There has to be reasons behind it, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri finds no shortage of carefully constructed (and horrifically conflicting) backstories to build its nightmare out of. Even when characters that you hate take a horrific beating, it's not pleasant or cathartic. It's just brutal, because even if you hate them, you know them now.

This film does not pull its punches. In a movie that sets literal fires more than once, it should speak volumes that my heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest during a scene where a guy throws something at a wall and just slowly walks towards Mildred while talking. I got the same adrenaline from that scene that I got from watching Dallas chase the xenomorph in the Nostromo's vent system in Alien. I know it seems like I'm just focusing on how dark and intense this movie is, but that's what I'm working with here.

For context, I talked to a woman in her mid 50s while I was waiting in the lobby and found out she was also there to watch Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Before the lights went down in the theater, I spotted her sitting in a back corner. When the credits rolled, she was gone. She left at some point during the movie, and I say "some point" because I don't know when. She could have decided to walk out at any number of scenes. I have a few guesses as to when exactly she left, but I'd have to narrow it down a bit first.

The film isn't a series of shocking moments, mind you. It has shocking moments, but again, it's grounded by the knowledge it builds around its characters. Shocking things tend to be more shocking when they're happening to people you understand. 

If there is a flaw with the film, it's that it's third act feels like a series of endings. At times, I thought the film was about to wrap up only to keep going on for longer and adding another wrinkle to the story. To be entirely fair though, where the story ends is basically perfect, it's just a bit rough pacing wise getting there.

Minor quibble aside, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is bleak, mean, and meaningful in a way that's hard to cope with, and that's why it's so great.

As a complete side note, it's interesting that two of my favorite movies this year both have Caleb Landry Jones in them. (Seriously, keep casting him in movies, he's really good and I'm really happy to see him in more and more films)

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