“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”: A Dark Comedy for Our Times

"Three Billboards..." Courtesy of FOX Searchlight Pictures


Dark comedies are intrinsically a mixed bag: those who love to laugh at things that shouldn’t be funny are supremely entertained but as comedies go, the movies tend to not have the genre’s conventional happy endings. For a prime example, look no further than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, that latest from writer-directeor Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) which is not only brilliantly crafted but also features stellar performances from Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell — three actors who are no strangers to the form themselves.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the mother of a murdered teenage girl. Frustrated by the local police’s inability to catch the killer, she rents three billboards outside of town that send a taunting message to the police chief (Harrelson). While the tactic is meant to keep her daughter’s case alive, they end up instead polarizing the town against her in support of Chief Willoughby.

As Hayes, McDormand is brilliant — balancing the pain of losing a child with the steel-eyed determination of a woman who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks, including Willoughby. And unlike small-town cops in movies such as First Blood or Walking Tall, Harrelson gives his role a tender vulnerability that makes this representative of the law uniquely likeable. In fact, the relationship between Hayes and Willoughby is perhaps Three Billboards’ crowning achievement. The humanity these characters display towards each other, despite they’re being obvious adversaries, gives this movie its soul.

Surprisingly, the people of Ebbing seem more preoccupied with wanting Mildred to remove the billboards than catching a murderer. But when the local priest (Nick Searcy) pays Mildred a visit to tell her, “Nobody is with you about this,” she unleashes a smackdown sermon the likes of which he’s never heard before. That scene alone is worth the price of admission. Yet Father Montgomery is not alone. The town in general may be displeased with Hayes’ strategy, probably none more than Officer Dixon (Rockwell), a violent half-wit who lives with his mother and who acts out on his distaste without restraint. Rockwell’s portrayal of Dixon is likely to make you uncomfortable; it’s this part of the movie, more than anything else, that pushes the film to its darkest sides. As loyal as Dixon is to Willoughby, his sense of justice is brutal. One of Three Billboards’ ugliest moments is his vicious, out-of-control beatdown of the young ad agency employee (Caleb Landry Jones) who has leased the billboard space to Mildred Hayes.

Recoil at it or revel in it, Rockwell’s performance is ultimately what qualifies this film as a true blue “dark comedy.” His trainwreck of a character is so wrong, it’s right. You may not like witnessing his behavior but at the same time, you’ll have a hard time looking away. Will Dixon ever show the type of humanity that his boss believes him to be capable of showing? Probably not. The best we can hope for is for Dixon to take a turn in the right direction. As for Mildred Hayes, she may never find the closure she needs around her daughter’s death; indeed, she may be haunted by her own failings as a mother as brought up by her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes). But such is the case with dark comedies. Enlightenment isn’t the point. Even life in the movies can’t be easily explained.

Audiences seem to be okay with that though as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has left arthouse theaters and is currently in wide release. Lucky for us because movies like this sometimes get lost in the Hollywood shuffle. If we have anything to say about it, this one definitely won’t.

Bill Flanigin

PS. Another indie movie that’s gotten bigger box-office buzz this year….plus, some true (and not-so-true) crime shows that have devoted followings.

Photo Credit: Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Montana courtesy of FOX Searchlight Pictures

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