Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
December 3, 2017 12:17 PM - Subscribe

In this darkly comic drama, a mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter's murder, when they fail to catch the culprit.

Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows a mother who takes matters into her own hands after the police in her town are unable to find a suspect in her daughter's murder by purchasing three billboards shaming the police for not solving the crime.

5 stars from Brian Tallerico at

And where, exactly, is the movie going? Not where you think. - Variety Critic's Pick

New York Times review

Anthony Lane in the New Yorker
posted by still_wears_a_hat (28 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
All the performances in this were amazing, but I had ... issues with the redemption arc of Sam Rockwell. Do I think it's possible for a violent racist to find redemption? Maybe, although it is not up to me to say how or at what point. I certainly didn't buy that I, as the moviegoer, was expected to grow fond enough of him by the end that I didn't mind that he'd escaped justice for what he had done to black citizens. I'm not alone in this. McDormand deserves an Oscar for this performance, but the movie doesn't deserve one.

It's funny that I immediately thought of The Beauty Queen of Leenane during the movie without realizing that the screenwriter had also written that play. There is a certain remove that reminds you that this is not a movie made by an American, even with fiercely American performances in a super-American setting. The sheriff is inexplicably married to a beautiful British woman a decade younger than he is, which, sure, I guess the internet could make that possible, but it took me some time to figure out which decade this movie is set in. All in all, a beautiful mess, I thought.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:42 PM on December 3, 2017

Haven't seen it, but the trailers highly intrigued me.
posted by Samizdata at 2:47 PM on December 3, 2017

When I thought about it afterward, I didn't buy Sam Rockwell's redemption either, but had no problem with it while I was watching it. I did have a hard time believing the police chief's wife and also the ex-husband's girlfriend - not that either one was unbelievable as a character, just that they'd be with those two guys. The girlfriend was hilarious, and totally convincing as a complete airhead.

I think what McDonagh is great at is making you believe something, then pulling the rug out under you. Over and over. I've seen enough of his stuff that I'm not surprised by it when it happens, but still never quite see it coming. I thought the reveal of who paid for the second month of the billboard was brilliant.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 6:22 AM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

(I haven't seen the movie, but) Pop Culture Happy Hour reaaaaaaaally did not like this movie. Based on Gene Demby's reaction, especially, I'm going to skip this one.
posted by minsies at 10:41 AM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just listened to the Pop Culture Happy Hour episode about the movie, and I mostly relate to the one host who found it kind of forgettable and didn't have terribly strong feelings about it, but everyone brings up a lot of good points that I agree with about how problematic it is.

My main takeaway when it was over was that while I appreciated the fine acting all around, every character was so abrasive that it would have been tough to stomach being around them much longer than I'd had to. At one point about halfway through the movie, a character we've never seen before steps into McDormand's gift shop that's full of little figurines, and before we knew anything about the guy except that he was shown stepping into a shop full of fragile things, all I could think was "Oh damn, what's he going to smash in there and why." (SPOILER ALERT: I only had a clear answer for one of those questions when the movie was over.)
posted by doctornecessiter at 11:49 AM on December 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Not seen it, but I really love In Bruges, was pretty disappointed by Seven Psychopaths, and have been over the moon for this since I saw the trailer in March (!). That the movie seems to be more about the 'redemption' of the violent bigot played by Rockwell (Who is always interesting, but still...) rather than McDormand being a DGAF badass is a bummer. McDonagh is good at twisty-turny, so who knows, but this went from being the first movie I was damn well going to see in the theatre since Fury Road to shit, maybe I'll just wait for Netflix.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:54 PM on December 5, 2017

I don't think the movie is more about the redemption of the Rockwell character than about McDormand. The comments - here and elsewhere - seem to be, but not the movie.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 5:56 AM on December 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree with PCHH on this, it was incredibly disappointing.

I'm supposed to feel sorry for both Woody and Rockwell, but they lost me as soon as they tortured/covered up the torture of a man in prison. Like, what the fuck movie? Explain to me again why I should care about these assholes?

It's perfectly possible to live in a small town without being literally mentally challenged. Rockwell's character, the sergeant, the ad agency guy, the ad agency girl, the 19-year-old all felt like they were playing HARD into country bumpkins. I know Rockwell was drunk most of the time, but he still sounded the same when he was sober.

The second month billboard reveal was neat, but also completely ludicrous. Woody is dying, leaving behind a wife and two daughters; he's not going to spend 5k on a joke. Also, 5k a month for three billboards on a side road? I should've gone into ad sales.

McDormand was great. Dinklage was great too.
posted by graventy at 7:07 AM on December 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

I did not care for this movie. I think that any critics who are praising it are just responding to the characters having actual arcs and are lazy and dumb for it.

I was pretty angry at this movie especially the scene where Sam Rockwell's deputy character throws a gay guy out a window then tells the new police chief (who saw the whole thing) to fuck off. Um, nope, fuck you Mr Screenwriter.
posted by Catblack at 8:56 AM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

This was recommended to me by someone recently and based on his description I had a visceral reaction that I do not want to see it. I justified by saying that I'm avoiding violent depressing stories right now but I just loved the new season of Black Mirror so I don't think that is exactly it. What I'm trying to avoid I think is the violent male protagonist, especially if there's a redemptive arc which is seems there is here? I know Frances McDormand is incredible because she always is but I don't think for me that will be enough to offset everything else.
posted by TheLateGreatAbrahamLincoln at 8:48 AM on January 1, 2018

I don't know why people think the ending of Three Billboards is supposed to be a redemption. These are not good people and they have not been redeemed. Mildred puts her son through emotional hell, fire-bombs a police station, essentially humiliates the kindest man in town (Peter Dinklage), and uses the n-word out of apparent habit. Dixon is a dangerously racist yokel cop who is marginally less awful at the end of the movie than he was at the beginning. As the credits roll, those two are hitting the road to commit (maybe) a vigilante murder-by-proxy. That's ... not an uplifting moment. It's a howl from the darkness.

The movie's bleak, folks.
posted by Mothlight at 9:48 AM on January 9, 2018 [25 favorites]

Yeah, I'm with Mothlight on this one. I'm absolutely sympathetic to people who, given the current political climate in the US (particularly the part of the US where the film is set), would have rather seen a film focused on the dynamic between policing and race. But I think the "redemption" arc for Dickson people is a side effect of trying to shoehorn the film into something it's not. Or to put it another way, for my money, the reason why it would seem that Dickson's redemption was not supported by the film isn't a failure on the part of the film; it's a misreading of the film to see something that wasn't in it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:23 AM on January 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

It's not about redemption it's about working through the pain of loss imho
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:43 AM on January 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I get how setting it in the American south made people long to see it take on racism, but that's not why it's set there... the American south is also an ideal setting for a story about flawed/problematic people who butt heads but also accept each other for what they are.

This was the thing I liked best about the film: how it portrayed the weird way that people can sort of grudgingly accept each other in small southern towns, even as they maintain all of their various grudges and prejudices. Dickson was a racist but he still wanted his black boss to think he was doing a good job. Mildred hated the PD for failing to catch her daughter's killer, but still had kindness for Willoughby when he spat up blood. The real estate agent was horrified to find out his new roommate at the hospital was the man who put him there, but he still gave him orange juice so he'd be more comfortable. Willoughby resented Mildred's crusade and it egged him on to an earlier death... but he was still sorry he let her down and wanted to do what he could to help her. And on and on.

These are complicated characters and not only does the film not try to pin them down to simple good/bad status, but for the most part the characters don't do that to themselves or each other either.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:21 AM on January 16, 2018 [14 favorites]

I knew it was going to be a different movie than I expected when Mildred gave Willoughby her nonsensical suggestions for next steps in his investigation. In a lazy redemption film, she's basically a better cop than he is and has been doing some digging, here is what he can do next, she's got the key to the investigation, why didn't you do X or Y (obvious logical things), etc. and he responds by covering his ass or being indifferent. But in this film, all she has is hurt and flailing and it doesn't help his investigation at all, though he would dearly love it if she had something that would.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:25 AM on January 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was pretty angry at this movie especially the scene where Sam Rockwell's deputy character throws a gay guy out a window then tells the new police chief (who saw the whole thing) to fuck off. Um, nope, fuck you Mr Screenwriter.

I thought Red (the advertising company owner) had a crush on his female assistant? I was actually worried that Dixon was going to turn out to be an Armoured Closet Gay, as he was in his forties, single, and never seemed interested in any women in the movie.
posted by daybeforetheday at 9:10 PM on January 19, 2018

Meh I thought it was ok. I felt like that whole Woody Harrelson part was unnecessary. I think it might have been different if his letter reading voice-overs were better but it just really did not work for me.
posted by LizBoBiz at 5:09 AM on January 22, 2018

Also wasn't a fan. It didn't land emotionally somehow. So many ideas were left unexplored and much of the plot was random. Like you were watching a series of scenes rather than a movie.

On the politics, I thought it was a movie of all the comforting myths about racism white people tell themselves. Including lefty white people, like yours truly. The film version of one of those "Trump country" pieces which multiplied after the election. "Sure these people are violent racists, but they have *feelings* and aren't they just so gosh-darn folksy?"

The film is so slippery so I sort of understand why people are arguing you aren't supposed to sympathise with any of the characters or see arcs of redemption. What counts against this is the filmmaking and cultural narratives. There are a lot of shots of single people reflecting mournfully, looking into the camera in a private space, whilst sad music plays. To me this pretty clearly says "this is a sad moment, you are supposed to feel sorry for this character."

I think The Death of Stalin is a template of the kind of movie I thought I was going to see or it could have been. In that the violence is systematic, horrifying and terrifying. But the characters are also bumbling idiots and hilarious to watch. Or Get Out as a darkly comic take on American racism. Or Manchester By The Sea for a take on people doing hurtful things out of grief or misunderstanding.
posted by Erberus at 2:52 AM on January 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

January 29, I've just seen it, it's like I've seen a different film from most of everyone posting. And about the glossing over racism: apart from where the racists are neo-nazi caricatures (Blues Brothers) or gross monsters, this is the only American film I've seen where the folksy white-haired old southern lady is a nasty messed up racist and set up as an explanatory factor of the entrenched social attitudes. I mean, I saw it as confronting those myths I've seen white Americans telling themselves, the same way discussions here post-Trump have tended to involve a bit of a re-thinking of baseline American attitudes. And I'm afraid I thought the writer was able to make that point in such a clear-eyed way probably because he is writing from outside the culture.

It's a funny old redemption that involves going off on a wild goose chase across state lines to commit murder. I mean the film did not allow Rockwell to be redeemed, all his good-intentioned action was for nothing. All that complicity, all that messed-upness, all that destruction. By the end McDormand and Rockwell are equally liable to do something horrible. Those anodyne little one-liners about begetting violence are put in place like a mockery of the narrative expectation of a conventional redemption arc.

There's an explicit correlation between American violence abroad in the theatre of war and violence at home, public or domestic; within that correlation there's an examination of the underclass (uneducated, racially coddled white guys) licensed to commit the violence. There's also a look at the tendency of male violence to erupt against the self in suicide as much as against others depending on opportunity. And the film has its moment of hopeful idealism in the arrival of the new sheriff, a replacement of the old order: it's not entirely airy-fairy as it reflects past political events as much as the rest of the narrative does.

I found it a tough, bony, witty film, a post-Trump film asking "What the hell did we actually do wrong? Oh, that." When I watch it again I'll pay more attention to the dialogue, and be able to enjoy the jokes more.
posted by glasseyes at 12:38 PM on January 29, 2018 [9 favorites]

At first I thought it was a hero story. Dunno anymore. "Dunno anymore" is kind of an appropriate response to the whole film.

There's a comment on the Variety review, "Frances McDormand morphed so slowly into Christopher Walken, I barely noticed." Yeah, that happened.
posted by glasseyes at 12:55 PM on January 29, 2018

One last comment. The film refers to the assault/torture of a black detainee several times. It shows the arrest of a black character on possession of 2 marijuana cigarettes, with the suspect being denied bail by the judge on the sayso of the dumbest cop in the area. This is done for no other reason than to put pressure on another character and it's more or less done with the backing of the community and at the suggestion of an elder who is showing younger generations how to manage a racially-tinged situation. I think the film absolutely does focus on the dynamic between policing and race in that particular place. It also shows the entrenched, inherited nature of white supremacy ideology and the violent and underhand tactics used to maintain it.

Change in the racist status quo is definitively shown as a consequence of inevitable outside influence: the small town is decaying and needs input from the wider world to keep it going. I would have said that was unduly optimistic except for, well, Obama really did happen. On reflection I find the film more systematically symbolic, more full of rigorous analogies, than I did yesterday, which is a function of the blazing performances and the tight, witty semi-realist script. It's altogether much more stylized than I realised while watching.

I don't regularly see popular films. To me, a black character calling a roomful of white subordinates a bunch of crackers to their face while giving them a thorough bollocking isn't something I've seen in an American film before. Also, the film assumes the audience will agree. Am I wrong here, is this a common scene? A cinematic trope, so to speak?

Oh, and, in homophobic places, men who don't act like thugs are regularly accused of being gay as a slur. I don't see why an audience would buy into the viewpoint of a drunk homophobic character. In general, did that character have accurate ideas about anything?

I don't know how you'd manage to be out in a place like Ebbing. I think you'd have to leave. If you cared about staying alive.

I mean yeah, I see it as an examination of the Trump moment. Those people are lost. No redemption for them, just more of making a mess of every single good thing they might have scraped together. No easy answers nor pat solutions.
posted by glasseyes at 2:03 AM on January 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don’t understand why the Idaho guy menanced Mildred at the Souvenir shop if he was actually innocent, overseas during the murder and its aftermath, and not from those parts. All make his emotional investment unlikely. If it was just to set up the audience to believe in his guilt, than that’s cheating IMHO.
posted by carmicha at 9:21 PM on February 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm infuriated and baffled that such a terrible, offensive film has achieved not just universal acclaim from critics I thought I respected but is a favourite to win the goddamn Best Picture award.
posted by Flashman at 4:18 PM on March 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

What struck me hardest about this movie was how Mildred, Willoughby, and even Dixon (to a lesser extent) contain multitudes at the same time: how a sense of vengeance can co-exist with seeing humanity in others; how suffering does not preclude wanting to make others suffer; how easy labels can cover up complicated and dark motivations. The whole messy dance, including--but not aspiring to--choosing the humane. That damned glass of orange juice, for example; a possible outcome, but not the most celebrated or public gesture, just the reaching out by the damaged to the damaged in a small act of repair. Neither Jason nor Mildred have let go of their anger, even after being separately advised to do so, but maybe, just maybe, that's a road they could take somewhere up ahead. Not redemption; an opportunity to chose otherwise.

(Argh, why not more of Clarke Peters? He suggests a whole other universe of relating to people while in authority and yet I can't believe he'd just drop the fire-bombing of the police station. And yeah, flat black characters, and yet the billboard man does step in when the racist ex-cop is being beaten, and...the movie is not great on that count. The nasty and sadistic and probably racist military guy gets a backstory, though, even if he's just conveniently drifting through town and hears about the billboards and does what all good patriots do when law enforcement is publicly challenged? The dentist doesn't sue? The widow can drive around town the day after her husband's death delivering mail? Loose ends and improbable events galore, and the flat black characters, excluding the new chief, are part of the plot that makes the focus on Mildred Hayes, Jason Dixon (a play on Mason-Dixon?), and Bill Willoughby possible. Imperfection setting off the stars, I guess, even as it mirrors the main characters' many troubling, troubled, violent, small-minded, self-righteous, recognizable and deeply human selves.) tl; dr: An imperfect but very, very compelling movie.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:24 PM on March 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've been mulling how I would classify this movie, and today I've landed on magical realish morality play. WATCH Mild Red Haze as she wrestles with the sin of ANGER. SEE Jason-Dixon SURRENDER to HATRED and BIGOTRY. LOOK ON IN WONDER at a man putting his VERY SOUL in peril of SUICIDE. Will he be? OR NOT? And when I write it out that way, in old-fashioned carnival scare caps, I see a different movie, one in which I am not supposed to pay attention to the other walk-ons or the issues they raise, any more than I would to a herald or a random townsperson. (I still think about them.) Red and black; blood and skin. Institutions won't save us, says this movie--not the law, not the church, not the oppressive opinions of small-town society. Only, and even then maybe, a hard-earned, been-through-the-fire change of the individual soul can open us to the hope of being differently in this world.

/Exeunt, pursued by a plate of beans.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:31 AM on March 9, 2018

Wow I was not expecting this movie to be such dumb garbage. Ha ha holy shit.
posted by fleacircus at 8:30 PM on April 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

This movie reminds me in a way of exactly one episode of Orange is the New Black. I don't mean a specific episode. I mean, if you wring out this movie into a jar, you get about the same thing as an average OitNB episode, in both kind and quantity.

You knock it back and go, "Well, that sure was some stereotypes, witty but mostly ugly/depressing, with some really kind of tiresome subverted-not-subverted-gotcha type crap mixed in, a little too pleased with itself, it's good to see some of this on screen I guess but kinda.. not like this...". With just a hint of mean, lazy regressivism in the aftertaste.

In Bruges is a silly dumb movie, but it works because it is a fool's descent into a shadow world. (At least that's my memory; 2008 seems long ago.) This film doesn't really know what to do with Mildred. Rape, policy brutality, racism -- these topics are too big.

Moment to moment, this movie feels so goddamn thoughtless. Just a bunch of stuff thrown at the screen. It's a terrible fit to the subject matter.

And like OMFG the scene where Mildred sees the deer, it's like McDonagh wrote six possible things for Mildred to say, and instead of picking the best one and developing it, she just says 'em all and they all land flat and fake and toothless. But every scene is like that! Every one is dumb in itself, or illustrating a dumb point. This is the Star Trek Into Darkness of dramas.
posted by fleacircus at 9:45 PM on April 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

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