Strong performances give life to strong characters in ‘Billboards’

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017 Movies & TV
Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand star in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Contributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” will make you laugh — and then make you wonder whether you should be laughing. And that’s why it’s so good. There are no easy answers.

At first, it seems like a fairly justifiable act: putting up three billboards to question why her daughter’s rape and murder has not been solved one year later. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the mother of the victim, hopes that it will stir the local police to action, and she has been grieving and blaming herself for the past year. She needs to do something.

But the billboards attack the popular chief of Ebbing’s police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and he’s dying of cancer. He has tried to solve the case but keeps running into dead ends and wonders whether the case will ever be settled. Sometimes, that just happens.

Then there’s Willoughby’s second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist thug who beats up the town’s African-American residents and has a big beef with Mildred for putting up the signs and maligning his boss.

With that setup, you might think you could side with Mildred, feel sympathy for Willoughby and despise Dixon. But writer/director Martin McDonagh doesn’t let us get too comfortable.

As Mildred, McDormand is a force of nature. She has one of the foulest mouths on the planet, and when a priest tries to persuade her to take down the billboards, he is so stunned by Mildred’s comeback that he can do nothing but shut up and leave. It’s one of the film’s strongest scenes.

It’s interesting to imagine that McDormand will get nominated for an Oscar, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will struggle to find a clip of her performance that can be shown without having to bleep out words.

McDonagh, meanwhile, draws out strong performances from Harrelson and Rockwell, too. As Willoughby, Harrelson is genuinely likable. He loves his wife and family. He’s trying to do the right thing. And he’s really facing an awful battle with cancer. There’s a strong, revelatory scene featuring Willoughby and Mildred, alone together, when Willoughby’s illness becomes obvious — and Mildred’s humanity is obvious, too.

Rockwell’s Dixon is a tougher case. But McDonagh develops his character in unexpected ways.

Other characters, including Mildred’s beleaguered son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and town character James (Peter Dinklage), add depth to the movie in unexpected ways.

There’s only one minor, false note in the whole film. And that involves a suspect from Idaho who passes through Ebbing twice. Idaho, of course, is nowhere near Missouri. When asked about this during a recent interview, McDonagh, who grew up in London, laughed and said he just liked the sound of the word “Idaho.”

Indeed. When it comes to sounds and words and sights, McDonagh has a knack.

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