Movie Review: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Is A Complex Story Filled With Three-Dimensional Characters & Delights In The Unexpected

“...suffice to say, ‘Three Billboards’ is an actor-fest that during the film’s development must have had casting directors fielding calls from half the thespians in Hollywood.”


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.

A professor and colleague of mine who studies rural sociology once told me everything in a small town is personal. For both good and ill, it is a notion that aptly describes the chain of events in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Maybe the biggest surprise is the way “Three Billboards” is not really the crime procedural the trailer suggests. No, this is a film about how personalities shape outcomes in unanticipated ways. In the course of the movie, there were numerous opportunities to tread into familiar territory – or worse, cliché. Nonetheless, in every instance, writer/director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) steers clear of potential pitfalls and charts an unexpected course.

Come Oscar nomination time, Frances McDormand is almost certain to be remembered for her role as Mildred Hayes, author of the billboards and the film’s protagonist. Indeed, her speech regarding culpability is worth the price of admission alone – particularly since a pedantic priest who has entered her home more or less uninvited essentially goads her into giving it. At first glance, all of the characters except Mildred seem to be one-dimensional caricatures – and perhaps as well we might imagine in a movie about what looks like a bunch of yokels in a small town. However, as we get to know them, and as they evolve in the course of the film, they are anything but lacking in depth.

Of note is the performance by Sam Rockwell, who arguably steals the show. Rockwell’s role could have easily been a cardboard cutout of a small-town racist, minion police officer. Instead, it turns out to be something much more.

Woody Harrelson is also in top form as Police Chief Willoughby. One might have supposed him to “hold the fort” against this annoying woman trying to tell him how to do his job. However, he has a few surprises for both the audience and Mildred. Abbie Cornish (“Limitless”) is touching as Chief Willoughby’s erudite wife.

In addition to the superb performances by the marquee players, many of the other supporting actors are pitch-perfect also. John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “Contagion,” and “The Perfect Storm”) plays Mildred’s violent ex-husband who now has a nineteen-year-old airhead for a girlfriend. Peter Dinklage, probably best known for “Game of Thrones,” weighs in as a reliable ally for Mildred. Lucas Hedges, coming off last year’s “Manchester by the Sea” has another pivotal role, this time as Mildred’s son. I could go on and on, but suffice to say, “Three Billboards” is an actor-fest that during the film’s development must have had casting directors fielding calls from half the thespians in Hollywood.

“Three Billboards” is the kind of film you will keep thinking about long after the final credits have rolled. Look for the production to capture a number of Academy Award nominations for the script, director, film and more than one of the actors. Should be quite a horse race given the number of fine films out so far this year. Personally, my bet is on Taylor Sheridan (“Wind River”) and Martin McDonagh to duke it out for best original screenplay and best director honors at the ceremony next year. We’ll see.

In select theaters Wednesday, November 22nd


Thomas Tunstall

Thomas Tunstall, Ph.D. is the senior research director at the Institute for Economic Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the principal investigator for numerous economic and community development studies and has published extensively. Dr. Tunstall recently completed an original screenplay and delivered a TED Talk dealing with sustainable community development in the wake of shale oil and gas development. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Economy, and an M.B.A. from the University of Texas at Dallas, as well as a B.B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin.

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