Lyric movie review: ‘Three Billboards’ is a dark, engaging battle

Nick Botkin

A setting orange sun frames the poster for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
“Three Billboards” offers dark and sometimes comical material, but lacks character development. (Poster courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures).

In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” life is an ongoing war.

Battle lines are drawn. An already fragmented community is further disrupted. And while these ideas of struggle further the movie, these battle lines make it hard to explore character.

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The movie’s protagonist is Mildred Hayes, a single mother, played by Frances McDormand. Hayes lives in the fictitious community of Ebbing, Missouri. She lost her daughter, Angela, seven months ago to a combined rape and murder. On top of that, Angela was set on fire. Hayes is angered by the ineptness of the local police department in investigating the case. The department is headed by the dying Chief William Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson.

Hayes decides to rent out three decrepit billboards outside town. She turns them into a form of protest. Each one reads, respectively, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests” and “How come Chief Willoughby?”

This is a seemingly mild action for Hayes. Hayes’ speeches are laced with invectives. Hayes and the other characters also rely on violence as a form of defense and empowerment. And there is significant backlash from a community in which Chief Willoughby is popular. 

Some of the violence is easily predictable, such as the billboards being burned. In other cases, it provides dark, unique and sometimes comic fodder. In one scene, Hayes drills a hole in a dentist’s finger after he makes remarks about the billboard situation.

But that is nothing compared to the bigoted, inept Officer Dixon, who enforces justice his own way. In one revealing scene, truncheon in hand, Dixon goes into an ad agency. He beats the owner and throws him out the window.

The owner’s crime?

Renting Hayes the billboard space.

Dixon is particularly symbolic of the movie’s reliance on tropes. Characters are all too frequently villainous. Stereotypes abound. This is particularly true of the police force. When characters redeem themselves, these changes lack utter credibility. They feel contrived.

I specifically wanted to see more development with regard to Chief Willoughby. He is a character with fascinating contradictions. 

On one hand, Willoughby is determined to defend his territorial imperative. Yet Willoughby also takes his daughters fishing and jokes about Oscar Wilde with his wife. His impending death is a powerful antagonist, but its effects could have been further explored.

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How did Willoughby’s fate shape his tenure as police chief? How did it impact his initial interactions with Hayes? Developing these themes could have made for a stronger movie.

Another failing of the movie is its unwillingness to explore Hayes’ relationship with her daughter before she died. While Angela might be dead, she strongly informs her mother’s actions in the present. However, we get only one poorly executed flashback scene.

Should you see this movie? If you like dark, comical fare. 

In the scene, mother and daughter argue over the family car. Angela wants to take the car but Hayes refuses, telling Angela to walk.

“I hope I get raped on the way,” Angela says. Of course, we know what ultimately transpires. This feels like the heavy hand of the screenwriter at work. 

 “Looks like we got a war on our hands,” Chief Willoughby proclaims.

That alone summarizes the movie’s focus. More focus on the backstories of Ebbing’s people would have made for compelling material. This is a movie with immense power and potential, but it surrenders to clichés instead.

Director: Martin McDonagh

Genre: Black comedy,drama

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage

Release date:  Nov. 10, 2017 nationwide. Dec. 1, 2017 at the Lyric and Cinemark Fort Collins 16. 

Running time: 115 min

Fun fact: The movie was shot in Sylva, North Carolina, according to IMDB.

Now playing at: The Lyric Cinema, Cinemark Fort Collins 16

Release Date: Nov 10, nationwide. Dec 1 at The Lyric Cinema and Cinemark 16 Fort Collins.

Collegian reporter Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com. His Twitter handle is @dudesosad.