Film & Television

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri : Frances McDormand’s Feminist Tour de Force

Frances McDormand is no stranger to strange roles. In 1997, she won the Academy Award for her portrayal of pregnant Minnesotan police chief Marge Gunderson. Among our most skilled actresses, she works constantly but is rarely in the mainstream. (She’s a perpetual favorite of the Coen brothers, and married to director Joel Coen.) She recently explained to the New York Times why she always gravitated toward unusual female characters rather than ingénues, “I was too old, too young, too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, too blond, too dark — but at some point, they’re going to need the other. So, I got really good at being the other.” Now, at age 60, McDormand stars in what may well be acknowledged as the best — and most outrageous — movie of the year. We can safely anticipate another Oscar nomination for the actress, if not the statuette itself.

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the astounding new movie by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), McDormand plays a grieving mother who takes matters into her own hands. The movie is one of the angriest films in recent memory. Yet it has moments of unlikely (yet hilarious) comedy and sincere tenderness, along with acts of nearly unwatchable violence. On more than one occasion, I gasped out loud and recoiled in my seat, as did other audience members around me. The effect was oddly engaging. Watching someone pistol-whipped or thrown from a window, I felt guilty having laughed at genuine, albeit dark, humor in the previous scene.

Simply put, if you like your movies to fit neatly into genres (or if you have an aversion to the f-word, the n-word, the c-word and countless other obscenities), you may want to steer clear. Otherwise, be prepared for a wild and ultimately rewarding ride.

When Three Billboards begins, a young woman, Angela Hayes, has been brutally murdered in working class Ebbing. It’s been months, and no progress has been made apprehending her assailant. So, her mother Mildred purchases three billboards on the edge of town and uses them to publicly challenge the police.

“Raped While Dying.”
“And Still No Arrests.”
“How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

Mildred’s action polarizes the people of Ebbing almost immediately. A local priest comes to her home to comfort her (and persuade her to take them down). A dentist attempts to punish her with the tools at his disposal (use your imagination). The manager of the advertising company where she buys the billboards is sympathetic, as is her coworker and “the town midget.” Her own family, a teenage son and abusive ex-husband, question her actions because they won’t bring Angela back.

Of course, as Mildred hopes, it’s the police who respond most dramatically.

Ebbing’s police force is at once laughably inept and dangerously corrupt. When a local news program interviews Mildred about her billboards, she accuses the police of being “too busy torturing black folks” to find her daughter’s killer. Racism is rampant in Ebbing (as is homophobia), and one brilliant scene in the police station has a dim-witted deputy arguing that the politically correct thing to say is “people of color torture.” Regardless, Mildred has declared war on the police, and she soon expands her enemy to include the town, and men in general. With rape and sexual harassment headlines having temporarily displaced “Black Lives Matter” stories, Mildred’s mission is painfully topical. The town, however, has deep affection for its police chief and an unending ability to look the other way when his men rewrite the law of the land.

One of the many elements that make Three Billboards such a rich film experience is the fact that the police — and especially Chief Willoughby — aren’t all bad. (Mildred isn’t all good either, but I’ll address that later.) Willoughby, played with charm and intelligence by Woody Harrelson, is a gentleman, a family man, surprisingly literate, and dying of pancreatic cancer. As he explains, there is nothing he would rather do than find the man who murdered Angela. The case is cold because DNA evidence led nowhere, not because he and his men weren’t committed. You get the sense that Mildred believes him, but she needs to blame someone and somehow take action. Despite her media attacks, she respects him.

Willoughby’s men, on the other hand, don’t deserve anyone’s respect. They are ignorant, prejudiced and quick to resort to brutality. Deputy Dixon, in particular, is a loose cannon. Stunningly portrayed by Sam Rockwell (The Way, Way Back), Dixon is belligerent and abusive and mindlessly loyal to Willoughby. He lives with his mother, reads comic books, drinks to excess, and solves problems with his fists when he isn’t pulling his gun.

I’ve already predicted an Oscar nod for McDormand; it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Harrelson and Rockwell nominated as well. Each of these three tremendous actors delivers a performance that is powerful and nuanced. They are playing complicated characters (even the thuggish Dixon) and they are fearless.

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  • King Lear December 23, 2017 at 8:29 pm

    The dumbest person in the movie summed up the theme: hate begats hate. Francis hated herself for being unkind to her daughter and making her walk to town, thus leading to her daughter’s rape and death. Francis tries to focus blame on others as she dealt with her own guilt. The moral of the movie is very powerfully presented. I see this being nominated for best picture.

  • madaline winkles November 28, 2017 at 9:20 am

    As always, McDormand never fails to make us admire and be thankful for her performances. The movie is so well done on many counts its hard to know where to begin but what I found so satisfying was the character development (a feature often lacking in more commercial films that depend on technology or fluff for appeal). Nuanced and subtle, the display of character depth, motivation and movement is a credit to the actors skillful performances (Harrelson and Rockwell – were also exemplary) and the quality writing of the screenplay. This is a movie not to miss.