A Review of ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

In a world of cosmic indifference, many of us ponder the purpose of being decent. Many of us may wonder why we need to forgive — both ourselves and others — in order to move forward in a world that does not seem to care about right and wrong.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri would argue that while the human condition and random chance guarantee unfortunate events, a capability for forgiveness is nevertheless necessary in order to deal with personal and worldly hardship.

The film, written and directed by Martin McDonagh (“Seven Psychopaths”), sees Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) agitating to get the police department of Ebbing, Missouri to pay more attention to the case of her murdered daughter, which has been lingering with no word for seven months. To make her point, she purchases ad space on three abandoned billboards on a rarely traveled road near her home, and has a single sentence printed on each with bold black lettering popping out on top of a red background.

Rather than a conventional murder mystery, the town’s reaction to Mildred’s actions and the development of the characters that dwell in Ebbing dictates the story that follows. Through the supporting cast, the likes of which include Woody Harrelson (“True Detective”) and Sam Rockwell (“Moon”), the film examines the human condition by taking conventional character tropes (the local police chief; the bad, disgruntled cop; and more) and adding layers of complexity on them that challenge our preconceptions.

McDonagh was inspired to write the film after seeing billboards about an unsolved crime in the Georgia-Florida-Alabama corner.

We learn, through this examination, that every human — no matter how typical or exceptional — is capable of both good and bad. And because of this simultaneous, unchangeable duality, everyone deserves a chance; barring atrocities, of course. Three Billboards shows its characters, some who are more likable than others, doing both good and bad things. We are left to be the judge, but by the film removing any sense or source of absolute moral authority, we realize that flaws are what make us human, and thus, capable and deserving of love.

While this thesis is certainly heavy, the film tackles this in a very understated way. A mix of seriousness, humor and irony, the film demonstrates rather than explicates. In other words, it is a full use of the motion picture medium par excellence. We are simply left to digest the actions as they unfold on screen.

The moving story (and the score), driven by the performance of Frances McDormand,  are the most outwardly emotional elements of the picture. The cinematography, on the other hand, is softer, and quietly achieves the film’s thesis through visual language. Reminiscent of “The Sopranos,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Fargo,” the shots — elegant captures of the mundane details of Ebbing and its characters — convey emotions just as powerfully as the rest of the film’s other elements.

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, resolutions are not the answer; redemption is. This unconventional stance type may leave some viewers dissatisfied if they are expecting many of the film’s larger plot questions to be answered. In a sense, however, the resolution is that many things in life rarely go fully resolved. But the emotional effect of what happens in our lives lingers, and that surely affects us. That is what the film cares about — how we process things, how we look inward and outward to forgive, and how we deal and move forward.

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