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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri review
A murder victim's mother rents three billboards in an attempt to shame the police into action.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, Samara Weaving


The McDonagh brothers, Martin and John Michael, are filmmaking's equivalent of the Gallagher brothers. John Michael is Liam - mouthy, but with little of worth to say - while Martin is Noel - the more nuanced brother, the songwriter. In the past it's been easy to tell their films apart (John Michael's are the bad ones), but Martin's latest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, often feels like it's borrowing the worst traits of his brother.

A year after the rape and murder of her teenage daughter in the titular American town, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has had enough of her local police department's failure to make any progress in identifying the killer. Coming across three dilapidated billboards on the edge of town, Mildred lays down $5,000 and hires them out, adorning them with three messages - “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri review

Needless to say, the police, led by Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) are none too happy with such negative publicity, and Mildred soon finds herself a pariah among her community, making a particular enemy of corrupt, loose cannon cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

McDonagh's film boasts one of the year's most intriguing premises, taking the anti-authoritarian concept of Bob Clark's 1985 social drama Turk 182 and giving it a rural twist that allows for an examination of America's increasingly heated culture wars in the process. McDonagh fluffs the execution however, delivering a movie that constantly wrestles with itself, featuring characters and situations that feel like they belong in separate movies.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri review

Three Billboards...
is at its best in its quieter moments. Every scene in which McDormand and Harrelson share the screen hints at the great movie this could have been in the hands of an American dramatist like John Sayles, Kenneth Lonergan or Todd Field. Harrelson's Willoughby is far from the redneck Sheriff stereotype we might initially expect. He seems like a nice guy, and he's suffering from terminal cancer, not that this stops Mildred from her campaign of harassment against him, and nor should it. Mildred herself is a complicated protagonist. Though we sympathise with her plight, she's a difficult figure to warm to, and the motivations for her quest for justice are questionable, given how we never see her mourn or grieve for her lost child.

Sadly, Three Billboards... falls apart elsewhere. At times McDonagh sketches rural America with the same offensively broad strokes his brother used to paint rural Ireland with in Calvary. You get the sense that McDonagh's only familiarity with this part of America has been gleaned from movies and tabloid headlines. Rockwell's Jason is a nonsensical cartoon character, played as though mentally challenged like an escapee from a Smokey and the Bandit sequel, and some of his actions take the film into the territory of fantasy.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri review

Peter Dinklage
reunites with McDonagh, and once again is put to work in highly problematic fashion, too often the butt of cheap jokes. Elsewhere, the treatment of a teenage girl played by Samara Weaving as a dumb bimbo borders on misogynistic, and is off-puttingly classist and ageist in its scorn for young, unskilled workers. The melodrama is too often painfully and improbably on the nose, like the flashback that reveals Mildred's last words to her doomed daughter.

McDonagh's message for Americans boils down to "Why can't you just get along?", but it's delivered in a movie that can't even get along with itself. Perhaps in the future, Martin and John Michael would be better served essaying the problems of their own country (the UK has plenty of issues to provide them with dramatic material) rather than butting into foreign lands they don't seem qualified to comment on.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is on Disney+ UK/ROI now.