Noisily Intrusive in the Best Way, "3 Billboards" is American Underbelly Gold

By Jacey Aldredge

“3 Billboards” has a little bit of something for everyone, even “Twilight” fans.

The Outdoor Advertising Association of America says that billboards got their start in the early 1800s, all thanks to Jared Bell, a scrappy New York local who printed extra large circus posters on behalf of the Ringling Brothers. A quick Google search will find that a circus is defined as “a public scene of frenetic and noisily intrusive activity.” Considering the figurative circus that becomes of Ebbing, Missouri when Mildred Hayes rents out her own version of these outdoor adverts, it would appear that Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” completes the original purpose of the billboard in full circle.

No one does this “noisily intrusive activity” better than Frances McDormand (“Fargo”), who plays Mildred Hayes with the scorn of a thousand women. Divorced, disgusted, and out of patience, she’s the tangible picture of having nothing to lose after her daughter, Angela Hayes, was “raped while dying” over ten months prior to the start of this film, and as of yet, “no arrests.” These are two out of three statements painted in bold black lettering amidst a bright red background on the three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri; are we getting the idea here? The third? “How come, Chief Willoughby?” And so it begins.

Harrelson and Rockwell in "3 Billboards" / Fox Searchlight

Harrelson and Rockwell in "3 Billboards" /Fox Searchlight

“3 Billboards” is less murder mystery thriller and more heavy metal indie; it’s purposely rough around the edges, with a slew of potential protagonists whose night jobs involve throwing Caleb Landry Jones out a window, setting a police station on fire, and paying for things post-mortem as a sick inside joke. McDormand’s Hayes is ripe with anger as she watches months go by with no leads coupled with a stagnant police force who’ve become ingrained in their American underbelly ways. With the rise of her billboards come the upheaval of Ebbing, and if you thought that’s where the story flatlines, you’d be dead wrong.

McDonagh, in true “In Bruges” fashion, holds nothing back with “3 Billboards.” It’s gritty as hell and fouler still, with more men getting cussed out by McDormand than a drunken bachelor party on the Las Vegas strip. She’ll stop at nothing to get to the bottom of her daughter’s murder, even if that means putting Chief Willoughby on blast despite his pancreatic cancer. In fact, when Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, who truly can do no wrong) confronts McDormand and reminds her of his fatal condition, her response is somewhere along the lines of, “well, it wouldn’t do me much good putting those billboards up after you’re dead, would it?”

Harrelson and McDormand in "3 Billboards" / Fox Searchlight

Harrelson and McDormand in "3 Billboards" /Fox Searchlight

No, Mildred, it sure wouldn’t. The secret to “3 Billboards,” though, isn’t the conflict. It’s the understanding. This is a small town, and beneath the reverberating fits of anger are neighbors who get each other, especially when one coughs blood on the other. Similar to dramatic acting scenes in your college theatre class, McDormand and Harrelson check on each other’s mental stability every so often, breaking their tough hard-knuckled exteriors to reveal compassion which has been shelved to reach a goal. For McDormand’s Hayes, that goal is justice for her daughter. For Willoughby, it’s to live in peace with his family until he goes. Spoiler alert, neither get what they want. And unfortunately for both of them, but very fortunately for us, they aren’t playing this scene alone. “3 Billboards” glorifies the term “supporting cast,” and easily puts to shame any film since John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” that tries to claim they’ve got the best supporting roles.

Rockwell and Sandy Martin as Momma Dixon in "3 Billboards" / Fox Searchlight

Rockwell and Sandy Martin as Momma Dixon in "3 Billboards" /Fox Searchlight

Sam Rockwell (whom I fondly remember as Knox in “Charlie’s Angels” but who has far surpassed that role in the seventeen years since) plays Officer Jason Dixon, a downright racist asshole of a man up until the last thirty minutes of the film who will throw your bad guy/good guy radar into overdrive. Rockwell will hopefully be walking away with awards this season; Dixon experiences more character development than anyone, including Hayes and Willoughby, who both stand pretty solidly by their original beliefs at the film’s end. Rockwell’s Dixon is violent and vulgar no matter the motive, and whether he’s ignorantly arguing or getting into bar fights where he has “scratched you like a bitch,” Dixon is an absolute pleasure to see stumble around. McDonagh has crafted a deeply flawed group of men and women who are delightfully entertaining to watch. From Caleb Landry Jones to Peter Dinklage to Amanda Warren and Darrell Britt-Gibson (whose billboard-painting Jerome perfectly reflects that angry compassion this film is chock full of), “13 Billboards” is only as strong as its weakest supporting role, which makes it pretty much unsinkable.  

In fact, the only grating part about this film is McDonagh's go-to composer Carter Burwell, whose score remarkably resembles his previous work on a certain sparkling vampire saga (yes, “Twilight,” I’m lookin’ at you). For your own sake, don’t think about it too much, or you’ll really be wondering when Edward Cullen is going to knock on Mildred Hayes’ door next. I pity the poor fool who does.

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Distributed by FOX SEARCHLIGHT

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is now playing everywhere.  

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit here.