Small towns have always been fascinating material for film makers. Because a lot of us live in big cities where our neighbors might as well be strangers until they play their music too loud and then they become the personification of everything you hate, you should really just talk to them, they’d turn it down, the idea of a place where every one knows each other becomes quite heart warming. But because we like to be right, we like the idea that they are just rotten as our big cities. The latest take on small towns is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But will a five star review be on it’s billboard?
With the murder of Mildred’s (Frances McDormand, Fargo) daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton, Big Little Lies) still being unresolved months after it happened, she decides to do something. Three billboards just outside the town of Ebbing are then put up which ask Chief Willougby (Woody Harrelson, True Detective) why the local police force has not done anything.
This movie is a bit different to the trailers. Perhaps trying to take advantage of the news over the last few years, the movie makes it seem like this is going to be an honourable women taking on a racist corrupt police force which would rather arrest black people for minor crimes than deal with anything that might be uncomfortable to them. There’s definitely that subtext to this film, black people are shown to be getting arrested for the tiniest violations, but that’s now what the movie is about. This is a film about anger. Yes, some of that anger is aimed at the police. Some that anger is aimed at Mildred. There’s a lot of anger and most of it is justified. The movie then moves onto how we use that anger. Mildred uses it to make one big statement that causes a huge uproar in this little Missouri town which mostly respect the police, especially as Chief Willoughby seems to be a decent bloke. However she also sometimes uses it to drill into the dentist’s thumb nail. Swings and roundabouts.
And just so we can get rid of this idea, Mildred is not an honourable woman. She has plenty of justified anger over the fact her daughter’s rape and murder has not been solved but then again, it appears that the police have done everything they can. And even though she knew Ebbing’s worst kept secret that Chief Willoughby is actually dying of pancreatic cancer, she’s still willing to pile more stress onto him and his family by putting up this billboards that deliberately target him and not just the police as a whole. She attacks people, including the whole drilling into a thumb nail thing which yes she was provoked for but it was still a bit much, and is mean to everyone. She doesn’t even consider her son Robbie’s (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) feelings when putting up the billboards as for him this just brings back his grief for Angela all over again. She is not a good woman even if you agree with what she’s doing.
And while the police certainly aren’t perfect either, they aren’t made out to be devils. As I’ve mentioned earlier in the review, Chief Willoughby is actually quite a reasonable person. Yes he wants those billboards taken down, but it does appear he’s done everything he can to solve the murder of Angela and that the reason there has been no arrests is because of a lack of evidence rather than a lack of effort. But again, the police aren’t shown to be perfect. The force as a whole is a rabble, with the people below Willoughby either being incompetent or just psychotically racist and angry. Hey look, there’s that anger theme again. It’s these shades of grey which make the film fascinating to watch as you are never sure what side to take, or even if you should take a side.
This is all aided by some brilliant performances. Frances McDormand always puts in great performances but I can’t remember the last time she was given a chance at a starring role. Usually she’s just stealing scenes as smaller parts in someone else’s story. But with the camera solely focused on her, she excels. She is excellent as this rather dour woman who is being torn apart on the inside but is desperate not to show it as she wages war with the police and the rest of the town. She definitely deserves that nomination for Best Actress at the Golden Globes and I wouldn’t be surprised if she got it.
My only issue is that I think the movie runs too long. This movie isn’t one that goes on forever, it clocks in at just under two hours, it’s just one that would have been better served by ending about twenty minutes earlier. There’s actually a scene I thought was going to be the ending as all the loose ends had been tied up and it would have even had a successful redemptive arc for one of the more despicable characters in this movie. But the movie decides to roll on after that and I would have been ok with that if it found something to do with that time. But instead it merely meanders until it gets to the real ending, which admittedly is still good and actually rather interesting. It did leave a sour taste in the mouth though as it is about 15 minutes where the film has to awkwardly movie pieces around to make that finale work.
But despite that, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is still a very powerful movie about anger and how people use that emotion. It shows a woman being angry at the lack of closure over her dead daughter, a police force angry at being attacked, a town angry that someone attack one of its senior figures and all sorts of other reasons to be angry about. Yes it does run too long but that doesn’t stop the rest of the film being one of the most thought provoking pieces in recent times.