Review ‘three billboards’ finds humor, redemption in tragedy movies 6 gases


“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has already received several accolades, including four Golden Globes, and it is easy to see why. Thanks to exceptional writing and acting, it deals with heavy issues with a mix of humor and humanity that never trivializes the subject matter.

Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered months earlier. The local police have no leads on who did it, so, in desperation, Mildred purchases three billboards outside of town asking Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why there have been no arrests.

There are a wide array of characters: Red (Caleb Landry Jones), the young man who helps Mildred purchase the ad space; Willoughby’s wife (Abbie Cornish); Mildred’s son (Lucas Hedges); Mildred’s abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) and his dimwitted young girlfriend (Samara Weaving); a dwarf with a crush on Mildred (Peter Dinklage); and, most notably, Sam Rockwell as Dixon, a racist police officer with an anger problem who is far from the brightest bulb on the force.

A lesser film would have turned this group of small-town characters into broad caricatures full of overly written eccentricities that are quirky for the sake of being quirky. Writer/director Martin McDonagh, an acclaimed playwright and the filmmaker behind “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” doesn’t go down that path.

Instead, he writes characters that speak like real people — warts and all. His characters are not remotely politically correct and use offensive language in the way that average people who don’t know any better — or don’t care to know better — use derogatory language.

McDonagh also doesn’t go down the route you’d expect given the plot. This isn’t a revenge story depicting an escalating war between Mildred as a saintly mother and the sheriff and the police department as unsympathetic villains. Instead, McDonagh creates a rich tapestry of characters that aren’t black and white.

Mildred often says and does things that are ugly. She can be crass, rude and hard. In contrast, Willoughby is more sympathetic. He’s dying of cancer and has a loving relationship with his family. He does empathize with Mildred’s plight but the case has gone cold.

Rockwell, a consistently intriguing character actor who can do idiosyncratic, funny characters as well as layered dramatic work, gives of his best performances. He manages to make a character who says and does terrible things not only sympathetic, but at times even likable.

Similarly, McDormand has us rooting for a person who can be deeply unpleasant. There’s a mischievous glint in her eye and sardonic, unfiltered wit that is appealing. She does things we wish we could. But, again, McDonagh doesn’t slip into making Mildred into some sort of brash quip machine.

Mildred is an emotionally complex character, dealing with guilt over her daughters death; the pain and anger of an abusive relationship; and the frustration of having no answers. McDormand plays it all with an authenticity that makes the character feel like a real, living, breathing person.

Harrelson is also doing some of his best work, taking a character you expect to be hardened and detached and delivering one of his warmest performances. He is the voice of reason, compassion and sees everyone for who they truly are and can be. Willoughby writes a series of letters to several characters that Harrelson delivers to optimum effect, wringing out every ounce of humor and pathos.