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Cinema in Focus: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

3 Stars — Challenging

Life in small-town America may present challenges, but — in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — Mildred (Frances McDormand), who lives just outside Ebbing, Mo., is challenged more than what may seem just, or even normal.

Her life has been turned upside down by the death of her young adult daughter who was raped and murdered. Meanwhile, her husband has run away with a 19-year-old girlfriend, leaving her at home with their teenage son.

As she sinks into depression and pain from the fact that the local police have no suspects, or hope of suspects, after six months of looking, Mildred decides to shake up the sleepy demeanor of her neighborhood by taking a dramatic step.

She buys the three decaying billboards along the highway outside of town and in large block letters challenges the readers to join her in asking the town sheriff why no one is working on solving the case of her daughter’s murder? To say the least, everyone from the police department to the local dentist and the parish priest question her motives.

Mildred is a “take no prisoners”-kind of individual who stands up to every bully in her path. This includes a host of characters on the police force, but in particular, Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who embodies every Southern cliché ever invented; racist, ignorant, white trash. The multiple clashes between these two are both startling and at the same time, amusing. He is someone you love to hate, but it is the twists and turns of their life together that bring about some much needed change, forgiveness and resolution.

At the center of Mildred’s challenge is Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who it turns out is dying of cancer. He is a mixture of contradictions. He can swear up a storm while telling everyone to shut up because they are bothering his Easter dinner.

There is a natural sympathy for Sheriff Willoughby because of his condition, but underneath the rough exterior there is a man with a heart and a desire to do the right thing. We won’t give away all of the things he does to make amends with his adversaries, but it turns out that the billboards that Mildred put up caused a series of healings to take place. Sometimes, a catalyst is needed to cause the pot to stir.

This film will make you laugh in the midst of the tears. The performances are remarkable, and it is no wonder that this seemingly simple story has four Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (McDormand), and two Best Supporting Actors (Harrelson and Rockwell). Every person here is going through change in a way you don’t see coming.

How do you get over your anger from the death of a child when the only spiritual leader in town is ill equipped to be a counselor? What do you do when the local authorities are filled with “good ol’ boys” who excuse away racial violence? What do you do with your feelings when your husband cavorts with a young girl who has unresolved daddy issues?

It turns out that the sheriff himself becomes the catalyst for change when he writes letters to some of the key players before he dies, challenging each of them to seek to be “the better people than they are” who he knows are buried underneath their individual pain.

Life sometimes isn’t fair, and sometimes there isn’t a great deal of wisdom in the company we keep. What we find in Ebbing, Mo., is a morality play that gives us a glimpse of hope for healing in the midst of the rough road we are sometimes forced to drive.

Discussion

» The community to which we belong will either harm us or empower us. What is the nature of your community and what is it doing to you? Are you a better person?

» If you were lost in a sea of pain, where would you get your breath? If the local spiritual leader is not equipped to help, where would you go for assistance?

» When it becomes clear that the sickness of this town is terminal, what do you think turned it around?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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