Review: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is a captivating tale forced into too small an outdoor ad space

A strange result of the modern television renaissance, saying something is better off on TV is no longer much of an insult. So it’s with quite high regard that it needs to be said of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film that could have really learned from the enduring, modernized, televised successes of Fargo and Twin Peaks.

Like those productions, the film is about a small-town murder, and far less a whodunit than a darkly comic examination of how such a close population deals with the aftermath. Original Fargo lead and Meryl Streep of the working class Frances McDormand stars as Mildred, a divorcée and grieving mother whose daughter was brutally raped and murdered, the case all but dropped by law enforcement after running cold long ago. That’s where the titular trio of ads come in: a way for the admirably steely Mildred to call out the local police, led by Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff Willoughby, on the lack of progress in the investigation. Because what works for highway off-ramp Blimpie locations should also work for a haunting homicide, right?

Both the question and its answer are thankfully more nuanced than that. Willoughby is a fairly decent, earnest man, genuine in his fervor to catch the perpetrator—and, adding another bit of sympathy, he’s recently learned he has terminal cancer. Not to help his matters, his head deputy is a dumb, hotheaded racist, played unflinchingly by the always-solid Sam Rockwell. From what little criminal evidence the film actually presents, it’s hard to place too much blame on the sheriff for not having anyone in custody.

But, again, Three Billboards really isn’t about the investigation any more than Ebbing, Missouri is about a real town. Unlike Fargo this film takes place in fictional desolation—and the reason would seem be that its made-up name is quite deliberate.

In a sentimental letter, Willoughby makes mention of the “ebb” of his declining health, reiterating that “Ebbing” isn’t just a town but the thematic thrust of the whole thing—psychological and physical declines; pulling back in the wake of tragedy; the moral decay of small town America. The issue is that while waves can ebb and flow in seconds, 115 minutes isn’t nearly long enough to explore the kind of personal growth, forced melodrama, and abrupt turnarounds the film demands. While writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) gets intense, hilarious, heart-wrenching, and his typically foul-mouthed performances out of McDormand, Rockwell, Harrelson, and supporting actors like Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Get Out and Twin Peaks’ brooding a-hole Caleb Landry Jones (here finally on the other side of the violent, racist coin), he’s ended up with a too-abridged version of the season-long arc these characters deserved. In admiring the successes of prestige television, McDonagh apparently abided by only the worst lesson: the True Detective example of giving a badge-wearing Woody Harrelson inordinately attractive lovers. Seriously, he’s married to Abbie Cornish this time?

Grade: B

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Director: Martin McDonagh
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Runtime: 115 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Clarke Peters, Željko Ivanek