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‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is packed with emotions, yet parts of the plot remain uncertain

By Noah Harper

Section: Arts

December 1, 2017

Noah: Last week we both went and saw “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and I have to say we were both kind of floored by it. Just a little bit of set-up: It’s the third film by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) and it starts off with a woman named Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, putting up these billboards outside of her rural town in Missouri. Her daughter was murdered months ago, and it seems like nothing’s been done to find the killer, so she puts up these really provocative statements on billboards, and things go from there.

The movie is hilarious, violent and heart-breaking. The characters feel real—there are multiple dimensions to them. And even though there’s a lot of anger, violence and hatred thrown around, I never really felt like there was a “villain” in one sense of the word. There are some really terrible people that do some really terrible things, but you kind of empathize with them. What did you think about the movie, Jonah?

Jonah: Well Noah, I won’t sugarcoat it: This movie made my cry. Three times. The story here is just so perfectly tragic and honest that I couldn’t stop myself.

This is the peak of what I’ll affectionately refer to as “sadboy” media, a superior version of last year’s “Manchester By The Sea.” I’m unfamiliar with director Martin McDonagh, but his writing and direction here is top notch, and brought to life by some really incredible performances. McDormand is great, but the real standout is Sam Rockwell, who turns in a career-high performance. Rockwell is playing a bad, mama’s-boy police officer, but he really sells the role, always earning the right amount of sympathy from the audience.

This is a story about how violence breeds violence. Common sense, right? But McDonagh illustrates that point, and really makes you feel how sad that simple fact is. “Three Billboards” is a great movie, but honestly, I’m not sure I can recommend it. Great filmmaking for sure, but like I said, it’s just so sad that I can’t say that everyone will want to experience it. What do you think, Noah? Who is this movie for? Can you recommend it?

Noah: You know Jonah, I’m just not sure. I tried to get my family to go see it over Thanksgiving, but they just wouldn’t bite (they went to see “Ladybird” instead). Part of me wonders if it’s just one of those movies that doesn’t quite have the “breakout” appeal, like “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”—one of those films only big independent cinema buffs will go see.

But I have had a little more time to think about it, and I’m not sure if the “violence just begets more violence” theme quite vibes with me. It’s almost been two weeks and I’m not sure if McDonagh, even though he’s admitting that idea’s triteness and trying to move past it, is quite able to.

Part of me wonders if Frances McDormand’s character is actually able to accomplish anything by putting up the titular three billboards—or is it about something else entirely? What do you think?

Jonah: I’d argue that the titular three billboards are an extension of that cycle of violence that McDonagh is so interested in exploring here. They—the three billboards—are blunt and bleak, just like the movie as a whole. When that’s done right, as it is here, that’s a good thing. But to answer your question, Noah, I don’t think putting up the billboards accomplishes anything. The question the film is grappling with is whether or not people can break out of this cycle of violence, and it’s answer is perfectly ambiguous (I’m pretty sure we had radically different takes).

That being said, I feel like I have to call attention to the fact that this movie is pretty funny, I guess? I mean, I was definitely laughing, but this is far from a comedy. It isn’t all entirely sad. It’s a blend of tragedy, humor and, most of all, grief. McDonagh, or more specifically his character Mildred, confronts the absurdity of the world in a film that’s honest, bleak and very good. It’s just not for the faint of heart.

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