Review: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ (beware the signs)

When perceived inaction continues, drastic measures may follow.

Months after a local murder has gone unsolved, Mildred (Frances McDormand) notices on the lonely road up to her home three old unused billboards — which also happens to be the scene of the crime. Purchasing a month’s rental on the signs, she calls out Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) publicly, creating a local sensation by drawing too much attention for local law enforcement’s liking. Drunken racist Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes the attack on his sheriff personally, but Mildred is more than prepared to go to war with the police if that’s what it takes to get things done.

Here’s a small town venue where things are as backward as you’d imagine. Racism gets overlooked, the police appear to run the town as they like, and everyone knows what everyone’s up to. As a drama, there’s a lot of baggage here, and learning the back story of all the characters involved takes up most of the narrative as the story unfolds. Can viewers see past severe character flaws and home-grown intolerance to consider someone a necessary ally or even a hero?

No one’s innocent in this, but no one is exactly 100% guilty, either. A perfect explosion of conflicting personalities escalates after a cold-case crime lights the match, and it’s both horrible and wonderful to watch. How far is too far? How far is not enough? When you’re driven to do whatever you can to right a wrong, the most terrible feeling in the world is not being able to do a single thing about it. Three Billboards isn’t an example of what should be done but rather what not to do… and how important empathizing with the pain of others can be when it’s all that’s left.

In a film stuffed with controversy, the biggest may be the bigoted and openly racist character played by Sam Rockwell. If you know the actor, you know he isn’t cast in nothing parts, so you have to know there’s more to this character than meets the eye no matter how convincing he is at being a waste of space. Having said that, at what point is a character held to their actions as to become irredeemable? Should anyone ever trust such a character, even if they’ve had (or believe they’ve had) a change of heart? Anyone having lived in a small inescapable town deals with people like this all the time and may have no choice but to count on them when the going gets rough.

Anyone expecting a happy ending should re-familiarize themselves with end-of-year awards fare, but at least we get an ending if it seems a bit ambiguous. Life goes on for those still here no matter how many are lost, and all we can do is deal with it as best we can.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is rated R for violence, language throughout, some sexual references, and a deep desire to punch someone in the face who really deserves it — at least once.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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