With Seriously Salty Language, 'Three Billboards' Offers Sense Of Small Town Community

Nov 9, 2017
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The movie "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" had what was arguably the strangest title at September's Toronto International Film Festival. But that title and some really salty language did not keep it from winning the festival's Audience Choice Award or from getting terrific reviews, to which our critic Bob Mondello will now add his.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Mildred Hayes is fuming through her drive home from work when she spies some tattered signs flapping on billboards put up before an interstate bypass turned this forgotten patch of pavement into a country road to nowhere. They give her an idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI")

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) What's the law on what you can and cannot say on a billboard? I assume you can't say nothing defamatory, and you can't say [expletive], [expletive] or [expletive] - that right?

CALEB LANDRY JONES: (As Red) Or [expletive].

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) I think I'll be all right then.

JONES: (As Red) I guess you're Angela Hayes' mother.

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) That's right. I'm Angela Hayes' mother.

MONDELLO: The words Mildred puts on those three billboards articulate a mother's nightmare - a daughter raped and murdered, no arrests. The third billboard asks a question; how come, Chief Willoughby? And that gets the chief's attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI")

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Willoughby) I don't think those billboards is very fair.

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) The time it took you to get out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl's probably out there being butchered right now.

MONDELLO: Another film might make Willoughby an antagonist for Frances McDormand's avenging angel or at least make him a foot dragger. This one casts Woody Harrelson and makes the police chief maybe the most sympathetic character onscreen because this is a film written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the guy who made the funny, blood-soaked, entirely unpredictable "In Bruges" a few years back. He has upped his game here in a profane explosion of jokes, violence and just plain peculiar goings on, including Mildred's appointment with the town's dentist, who starts to lecture her while he has a drill in his hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI")

JERRY WINSETT: (As Geoffrey) There's a lot of good friends of Willoughby in this town, Ms. Hayes. (Screaming).

MONDELLO: Shortly after, Chief Willoughby pops by Mildred's store.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI")

HARRELSON: (As Willoughby) Hey there, Mildred. You didn't happen to pay a visit to the dentist today, did you?

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) No.

HARRELSON: (As Willoughby) Huh?

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) I said no.

HARRELSON: (As Willoughby) Oh, so it wasn't you who drilled a little hole in one of big, fat Geoffrey's big, fat thumbnails, no?

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) Of course not.

HARRELSON: (As Willoughby) Huh?

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) I said of course not.

MONDELLO: Though much of this film is laugh-out-loud funny, the humor is in the service of serious social criticism. "Three Billboards" is very much about race and prejudice, about the sense of community that ties small towns together, the communal guilt that can tear them apart and the understandable-but-misguided impulse we all have to make life tidy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI")

MALAYA RIVERA DREW: (As Gabriella) And as sad as the spectacle of these billboards might be, this reporter, for one, hopes this finally puts an end to the strange saga of the three billboards outside Ebbing...

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) It's going to put an end to [expletive], you [expletive] [expletive]. This is just a [expletive] start. Why don't you put that on your "Good Morning Missouri" [expletive] wakeup broadcast, [expletive].

MONDELLO: The film boasts a blistering performance from McDormand and very sharp ones from everyone around her. And to go with its scalding humor, it has heart - a beating as opposed to a bleeding heart - when it comes to characters flawed enough that if you met them in real life, you'd run.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI")

MCDORMAND: (As Mildred) Hey, [expletive].

SAM ROCKWELL: (As Dixon) What?

ZELJKO IVANEK: (As Desk Sergeant) Don't say what, Dixon, when she comes in calling you a [expletive].

MONDELLO: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" sometimes feels like the best Coen brothers movie the Coens didn't have anything to do with, sometimes like a social critique of this particular moment and all the time like one of the most invigorating black comedies Hollywood's come up with in years. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENGOKU'S "BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.