Film

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mama tried

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Secrets aren’t easy to keep in the titular Ozarks backwater of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The townsfolk generally know each others’ business, even when it’s none of their business.

Any truths left buried are likely to be pried out by flinty local Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who swears like a sailor and dresses like an auto mechanic in her blue jumpsuit, but who implausibly runs a gift shop called Southern Charms, selling china rabbits for $7 apiece.

Mildred can discern with one withering glance if you’re telling a lie. She has a way of knowing things about you that you might not even admit to yourself.

So imagine her frustration at not knowing, seven months after the horrifying fact, the identity of the man who raped, murdered and burned her teen daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton), on a lonely stretch of road outside town. And understand why Mildred would spend good money renting a trio of billboards to vent her anger, calling out William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s police chief, for his incompetence or indifference.

Righteous fury, but also dark comedy, roars through this third and best feature by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). The film is likely to be a major player at the Oscars and other awards shows, as well as in year-end Top 10 lists.

Writer/director McDonagh knows how to get good characters into a story but not always how to get them out of it. This time he’s considerably more focused, letting McDormand’s ferocious mother-bear of a performance, her best since Fargo, drive the narrative.

This is no small achievement—she’s a lock for Best Actress nominations everywhere—because the story has more twists and turns than the bloodstained highway that runs through it. Our sympathies and scorn seem clear at the outside but they become less so, when difficult facts about the case emerge and parties deserving of disdain approach redemption.

As great as McDormand is, she has at least one other awards-worthy player in her midst: Sam Rockwell. He plays Willoughby’s brutish and racist deputy Dixon, a man-child ripe for comeuppance and education, if the latter is even possible for so dense an individual.

It’s hard to figure why the chief, a hard but apparently decent family man, tolerates a thug on his force who tortures suspects, especially Black ones. There are a lot of things about Ebbing, Missouri that vex the mind.

Maybe it’s because Willoughby, one of Harrelson’s most notable characters, knows that mama’s boy Dixon lives under the heel of an abusive and hateful mother (Sandy Martin), who makes the shriveled mater of Psycho seem all sweetness and light by comparison.

Alas, there’s not much room left in the screenplay for other people besides the three leads. One of the casualties is Robbie, Angela’s brother, who is like the proverbial deer in the headlights as his mother rages through town, alienating everybody (but amusing viewers) with her foul mouth and attitude. Robbie is played by Lucas Hedges, who brought nuance to family grief in Manchester by the Sea, but doesn’t get the chance to do so here.

Two other players take their best shots at seizing the screen: John Hawkes as Mildred’s abusive ex-spouse, who is dating a zygote and seems a cauldron of rage; and Peter Dinklage as a friend of Mildred’s who would like to be more than that, if she would only cease her insults.

But the most potent “stars” of the movie aren’t even human. Those three billboards of the title—blood red with stark black letters, rising out of the finely realized mist and mood of Ben Davis’ cinematography—stand in a field by the roadside, asking questions and hurling accusations. They motivate all who see them. They sink into the soul.

ICU Roof #2
More Film...
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The force is strong

Making a movie like The Last Jedi takes a special blend of deep respect for the mythology of Star Wars and a strong impulse to keep the 40-year-old material fresh. Few franchises are this closely cherished by its fans (or its production studio), which makes any radical reinvention out of…

more »
Tragedy Girls
Clueless meets Carrie

Ever since Scream evolved from an affectionate send-up of horror genre tropes into a genuine money-minting franchise, there have been nearly as many tongue-in-cheek slasher movie homages as actual slasher movies, all too many of which were content to simply mimic the idiosyncrasies of their…

more »
Lady Bird
A slice of cinematic perfection

American movies today are generally aimed at four different audiences: kids, adults, females and males. The coming-of-age screwball comedy Lady Bird crosses all those mutually exclusive boundaries to take us down novel, delightful paths.

While it’s focused on a high school senior looking…

more »
Events
Today
Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|4145 Meridian St.

Santa's in Town

10:00am|Yeager's Toyland

The Lights of Christmas

5:00pm|Warm Beach Camp

Little Women, the Musical

7:00pm|Sudden Valley Dance Barn

Anne of Green Gables

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Wild Things

9:30am|Connelly Creek Nature Area

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am|Sunset Square

Hot Cider & Cool Art

10:00am|Morgan Block Studios

COffee Tasting

3:00pm|Camber Cafe

Hidden Narrative Tour

3:30pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Drayton Harbor Shell-ebration

4:00pm|H Street Plaza

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Jingle Belles

4:00pm|La Conner

Ukulele Concert

5:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Holiday Movie Night

6:00pm|Bellingham High School

Holiday Night Market

6:00pm|Commercial Street

The Snow Queen

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Holiday Ball

7:00pm|Majestic

Vaudevillingham

7:00pm|Cirque Lab

Community Orchestra Winter Concert

7:30pm|Squalicum High School

Skagit Valley Chorale's Heralding Christmas

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Ghosts and Brawling

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Setzer
Tomorrow
Santa's in Town

10:00am|Yeager's Toyland

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|4145 Meridian St.

The Lights of Christmas

5:00pm|Warm Beach Camp

Little Women, the Musical

7:00pm|Sudden Valley Dance Barn

Anne of Green Gables

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Hot Cider & Cool Art

10:00am|Morgan Block Studios

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am|Sunset Square

The Snow Queen

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Skagit Valley Chorale's Heralding Christmas

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Ghosts and Brawling

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

VFW Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Hall

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

Make It and Take It

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Breakfast with Santa

9:00am|Bellingham Childcare & Learning Center

Coast Salish Winter Festival

10:00am|Lummi Gateway Center

Jingle Bell Dash

10:00am|Seafarers Memorial Park

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Sleighbells Ring

10:00am|Bellewood Acres

Holiday Tea

10:00am|South Whatcom Library

Chainsaw Sculpting Open Studio

10:00am|Tomas Vrba Studio

Baker Beacon Rally

11:00am|Heather Meadow

Fairhaven Winterfest

12:00pm|Historic Fairhaven

Peter James Holiday Gallery Sale and Reception

1:00pm|BelleWood Acres

Hansel and Gretel

1:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Youth Symphony Holiday Concert

1:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Eat Your Words Cookbook Club

2:00pm|South Whatcom Library

Holiday Wines from Spain

2:00pm|Seifert & Jones Wine Merchants

Mozzarella Class

3:00pm|Appel Farms

Winter Dance Celebration

3:00pm|Brodniak Hall

Noel Trio

3:00pm|Jansen Art Center

The Nativity

6:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Not So Silent Night

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Winter Star Mountain Journey

7:00pm|Blaine Performing Arts Center

Kulshan Chorus Winter Concert

7:30pm|Bellingham High School

Skagit Symphony Holiday Concert

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Wizard People, Dear Bellingham

8:00pm|Alternative Library

Teen Library Lock-In

8:00pm|Ferndale Library

Christmas Milonga Tango Experience

9:00pm|Presence Studio

Bellingham Farmer’s Market Setzer
Sunday
Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|4145 Meridian St.

Santa's in Town

10:00am|Yeager's Toyland

The Lights of Christmas

5:00pm|Warm Beach Camp

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am|Sunset Square

The Snow Queen

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Skagit Valley Chorale's Heralding Christmas

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Sleighbells Ring

10:00am|Bellewood Acres

The Nativity

6:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:30am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Winter's Return Concert

2:00pm|Skagit Valley Unitarian Fellowship

Nonfiction and Memoir Writing Group

3:00pm|Village Books

Nutcracker Holiday

3:00pm|Jansen Art Center

Holiday Chorus

3:00pm|St. James Presbyterian Church

Whatcom Chorale's Messiah

3:30pm|Church of the Assumption

Backgammon Session

5:30pm|Parkway Village

Way North Comedy Showcase

7:00pm|Farmstrong Brewing Co.

see our complete calendar »

Bellingham Farmer’s Market Setzer Trove Wizard Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1