THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: raw emotion and dark hilarity


In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a powerful combination of raw emotions and dark hilarity, Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a small town woman consumed by the unsolved murder of her daughter.  Mildred doesn’t have the power to solve the murder herself, but she has the power to make everyone else uncomfortable until she finds justice and closure.  She buys billboards that personalize the stalled murder investigation, laying the blame on the popular town sheriff (Woody Harrelson).  She intends to rile people up, and, boy, does she succeed.

There are consequences, both intended and unintended.  In addition to the murder mystery, there are two new whodunits related to the billboards and some violent outbursts by two of the characters.  There’s a heartbreaking letter, and two more utterly unexpected letters.

The murder of one’s child is shattering enough, but Mildred also piles guilt on herself.  The murder has enraged the entire family, including Mildred’s son (Lucas Hedges of Manchester By the Sea) and her ex-husband (John Hawkes).  All three express their rage in different ways.  This is a showcase role for McDormand.


This might be Woody Harrelson’s best performance.  His sheriff is an island of common sense, decency and levelheadedness in a turbulent sea of upset and idiocy.  The character of the sheriff is a remarkably fine father and husband in ways that are fun and interesting to watch.   The sheriff is facing his own mortality, and his feelings are hurt unjustly, but we only see glimpses of the pain in Harrelson’s eyes.  This is a performance that would have been in the wheelhouse for Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck, and Harrelson nails it.

Sam Rockwell plays Dixon, one of the sheriff’s deputies.  Dixon is an unfortunate muddle of bad instincts, no impulse control, stupidity, racism and rage.   Then he gets an unexpected opportunity for redemption…

Sandy Martin also sparkles as Dixon’s Momma.  It’s a very small part, but Martin practically steals the movie  with her white trash Svengali. Martin’s 128 screen credits include roles in Transparent, Big Love and as Grandma in Napoleon Dynamite (she’s the one who says Knock it off, Napoleon! Just make yourself a dang quesa-dilluh).

Samara Weaving is really perfect as the inappropriately-young-girlfriend-on-the-rebound of Mildred’s ex.  Weaving is drop dead beautiful with a remarkable sense of comic timing and a mastery of deadpan.  Fully invested in her character’s goodhearteredness and  airheadedness, she reminds me of Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Banks as a comic actor.

Peter Dinklage plays a character that provides comic relief and one important plot point, and he brings an unexpected and profound feeling to the part.

Here’s one thing that is uncommonly great about Three Billboards:  the story would have worked with characters of far less dimension, but the roles written by Martin McDonagh and performed by the cast elevates Three Billboards.  Mildred could have been only a shrew, the sheriff could have been only a cardboard foil and Dixon could have been only a buffoon.  Instead McDormand, Rockwell and Rochwell add layers of complexity to their characters, and Hawkes, Martin, Weaver and Dinklage each contribute more to the mix.

Three Billboards is brilliantly written by director Martin McDonagh.  McDonagh’s 2008 In Bruges was either the funniest hit man movie ever or the darkest and most violent buddy comedy ever.  Three Billboards shares the same dark/funny flavor.   Three Billboards also has a really fine soundtrack with a couple of spaghetti western-inspired cues.

The emotion in Three Billboards is genuine and deeply felt.  There are some especially grim moments, peppered with lots of laughs.   As I ponder this film, I keep coming back to the characters, the performances and the surprises in the story. Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri was an audience favorite on the festival circuit and is a Must See in theaters now.

Promised Land: so good until the corny ending

Promised Land is an engaging drama about the exploitation of natural gas in rural America –  until the corny ending.  Matt Damon and Frances McDormand play a team of corporate road warriors who persuade farmers to lease their land for the fracking.  Based on the experience of his own hometown, the Damon character believes that the American rural way of life has become an unsustainable myth, that small farming communities are doomed without the cash from natural gas.  He believes that he is suckering them into their own salvation.

It’s an “issue movie”of the kind that I often dislike. My day job is in   public policy, and I see more nuance and tradeoffs than usually make it into these movies, which are often too “black hat/white hat” for my taste.  Promised Land doesn’t fall into that trap because Damon’s character and because the locals are not uniformly saintly.  Most of the struggling farmers can’t sign their leases fast enough.  Ken Strunk plays an elected official right out of Mark Twain’s Hadleyburg.  Lucas Black plays a guy who is a puddle of bad choices waiting to be made.  Scoot McNairy (Argo) plays an inarticulate man of firm principles; he’s right, but he doesn’t know why.

Director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Elephant, Paranoid Park, Milk) creates a rural community that is completely authentic without using clichés.   Damon is outstanding.  McDormand, John Krasinski, a frisky Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married, Your Sister’s Sister) and Hal Holbrook are all reliably excellent.

Unfortunately, after navigating through the conflicting values, difficult tradeoffs and shades of gray that are found in real life, the movie takes the easy way out – an improbable ending that is happy for all.  Too bad – a little cynicism would have gone a long way here.