Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review: Oscar front-runner offers no easy answers

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review: Oscar front-runner offers no easy answers
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review: Oscar front-runner offers no easy answers

★★★★

Review by Matthew Turner

Following its recent success at the Golden Globes and its subsequent slew of BAFTA nominations, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has become the de facto Oscar front-runner.

However, the film is far from just the quirky smalltown mystery its title might lead viewers to expect.

Instead, it’s a complex crime drama that offers no easy answers.

The film centres on bereaved mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who is furious at the local police department for their failure to catch the person responsible for the rape and murder of her daughter, seven months previously.

She commissions the titular three billboards which read simply: ‘Raped and murdered. Still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?’

Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby is sympathetic to Mildred’s situation, but he’s dealing with his own problems. He’s just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, prompting her less than sympathetic response: “They won’t be as effective after you croak.”

Meanwhile, Willoughby’s hot-headed idiot deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) decides to do something about the billboard problem, with disastrous results.

Fascinating and provocative

Three Billboards finds writer-director McDonagh back on the form of his debut feature In Bruges, after his abysmal mess of a follow-up feature, Seven Psychopaths.

The clever script pulls no punches, offering darkly funny dialogue that is rooted in deep emotion, with Mildred’s anger and pain practically burning up the screen.

Three Billboards Rockwell
Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand are extraordinary (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Having earned that sympathy for the character, McDonagh puts it to fascinating, provocative use, challenging the audience to support Mildred even when her actions cross significant boundaries.

Without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that Three Billboard never quite does what you expect, and that its narrative twists and turns are consistently complex and interesting.

Ultimately, the fact that it raises several different issues without offering conventional solutions feels surprisingly topical – it’s a film suffused with rage and hate that is often uncomfortable to watch, delivering an unconventional resolution that’s intriguingly ambiguous.

McDormand at her best since Fargo

Fortunately, McDonagh has cast the film to perfection and the strength and conviction of the central performances power the audience through the often challenging journey.

McDormand, in particular, is magnificent, delivering her best performance since her Oscar winning turn as pregnant cop Marge Gunderson in Fargo.

Three Billboards Woody
Woody Harrelson (pictured) and Sam Rockwell are both superb as well (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

As Mildred, she’s a veritable force of nature, consumed by grief and rage and unable to move on. It’s a performance that’s both impossible to tear yourself away from and painful to watch at the same time.

Rockwell is equally good as Dixon, with a character arc that’s as surprising as it is improbable, while Harrelson is superb as Willoughby, generating touching chemistry with McDormand’s character, particularly in the scene where he reveals his illness.

By turns shocking, provocative and laugh-out-loud funny, the combination of McDonagh’s sharp script and the perfectly pitched performances ensure that Ebbing, Missouri is well worth a visit.


Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Clarke Peters, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, John Hawkes, Zeljko Ivanek, Brendan Sexton III
Genre: Drama
Country: United States
Release date: 12 January, 2018
Cert: 15
Running time: 115 mins