'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missiouri'
‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is a righteous and angry film. It deals with an unsolved and dismissed crime that rocked a small town, along with the people left harmed in its wake. However, if Martin McDonagh’s brilliant movie were merely about some sort of rise to justice, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
Frances McDormand stars as Mildred, a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered. The local small town law enforcement was unable to even find a suspect. Justifiably furious and desperate to force the cops into some sort of action, Mildred buys three billboards just outside of town and covers them with a direct demand to the sheriff to solve the crime. Obviously, that causes one heck of a kerfuffle. There are news reports. Her ex-husband (John Hawkes) is angry about the sensationalism and her son (Josh Lucas) is hurt by the constant reminder of a trauma that he’s struggling to move past. The police department doesn’t take too kindly to it either, especially an immature and openly bigoted cop played by Sam Rockwell. The sheriff (Woody Harrelson) is obviously upset, but not just because of the attention. There was no cover-up or conspiracy. There just genuinely wasn’t enough evidence to pursue. It’s a big mess for everyone.
The first thing that must be said about ‘Three Builboards’ is that Frances McDormand gives a powerful and riveting performance at the center. She plays a strong woman driven by passion and fury, whose strength isn’t devoid of empathy. It just arrives in unexpected places. As the story moves on, she’s tested and the character (and performance) grows. She has amusing show-off monologues early, such as a spirited takedown of the Catholic Church, but the true depth of her work arrives when she’s tested, challenged, and forced to consider other points of view.
A similar sense of rich characterization comes from all players in the story. Harrelson initially seems to be a lovable country goof before a far stronger and even noble man emerges beneath the surface. Peter Dinklage seems to be jokey stunt-casting until his role reveals a true and pained person beneath the gags. Best of all is Sam Rockwell in possibly the finest performance of his career, playing an erratic goofball hick who grows into something far more compelling, human, and tragic without losing his energetic comedic charms. It’s a role designed to capitalize on everything Rockwell does well and hopefully it’ll finally be the performance that earns him the attention that he deserves.
Of course, this many great performances don’t emerge in a single film without great writing to inspire them. McDonagh’s script for ‘Three Billboards’ feels particularly relevant in the current climate of outrage culture and Twitter justice while still playing as a satisfying and bleakly funny small town crime comedy on the surface. Make no mistake, the film doesn’t feature nearly as many laughs as McDonagh’s cult debut ‘In Bruges’. That would be inappropriate. This material is too searing and painful and truthful, and McDonagh shows it respect. At the same time, he’s also playing with the awkward, rambling realities and discomfortingly gray moralities to life. Spikes of humor and devastating lulls of drama brush up against each other regularly. It’s hard to predict where any scene will go, and if you feel that you have a grasp on what will happen next, that’s usually a misdirect. The characters are all rich and full, with layers to their psychology and unexpected growth spurts in their morality. Everyone is struggling. Everyone has problems. That’s the point.
More than anything else, McDonagh’s film is a condemnation of hate. Obviously the hatred that leads to violence and dehumanizing tragedy, but also the hatred that comes from a righteous place seeking justice that can easily blind those possessed by it as they pursue a cause. No matter what the source of hate in anyone, it tends to confuse and lead to unfortunate consequences, particularly preventing any conversation and/or reconciliation between those who share it for each other. That’s a complex and important message to share, especially in such dramatically bipartisan times where everyone is expected to take instant and strong moral stands against all issues and people, with no room for nuance or empathy for those we disagree with.
This is potent and important material to explore, and thankfully McDonagh does so not through dry and moralizing drama, but in a darkly funny, unpredictable, and entertaining thriller filled with fascinating performances by brilliant actors. This is art that doesn’t forget to entertain and entertainment that doesn’t condescend or ignore vital truths of the time.
Perhaps a couple monologues get a little too pointed and the brilliant writer is still growing as a filmmaker with an unfortunate affinity for visual symbolism that’s a little too on-the-nose. Even if ‘Three Billboards’ isn’t perfect, it’s still an extraordinary cinematic accomplishment by all involved. The movie raises issues that should be discussed right now. It’s easily one of the finest films of the year. You’ve only just started to hear about ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ but get ready to hear so much more despite the unwieldy title.