Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Kathryn Newton, Lucas Hedges
Director: Martin McDonagh
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The work of writer-director Martin McDonagh has often been compared to the Coen Brothers. The balance of dark humor with moral seriousness is certainly there in spades, but whereas the Coens have little to no faith in humanity, McDonagh seems genuinely interested in how human beings can turn a corner while being trapped in a bleak world. Both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths juggle black comedy with moral consciousness, but his latest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri, is probably the most streamlined effort yet in terms of character arcs. Wisely doing away with some of the goofy farce of Seven Psychopaths while maintaining the acidic ruthlessness of In Bruges, Three Billboards is a comic-tragic tale of complicated people doing vicious things in the name of anger and pain.
Superficially, the film has a streak of vigilante justice that incurs understanding, if not empathy. However, McDonagh complicates the narrative by giving most of the characters here more than one layer of shading. The story concerns Mildred (Francis McDormand), a grieving mother who will not accept any excuses for the unresolved nature of her daughter's rape and murder. The titular billboards, located just outside the sleepy town of Ebbing, are blank until Mildred takes it upon herself to use them as a podium for her outrage directed at the local police department. The chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is specifically called out in bold letters, prompting controversy among the community. Crucially, the billboards are not only a way for Mildred to reignite her daughter's case, but also prime her deeply ingrained feelings of hopeless exasperation.
When Mildred goes up against chief Willoughby and a dim-witted cop played by Sam Rockwell, demanding the blood of every man in town to be drawn for DNA, she's deadly serious and we believe her. McDormand digs into the portrayal of a woman broken by life and scarred by tragedy with a mixture of steely-eyed resolve and whip-smart comedic timing. It's a role tailor-made for the actor, but McDonagh's script is constantly shifting our sympathies. Obviously, what happened to her daughter is beyond horrific, but Mildred is not some saintly avenging angel or unstoppable badass. When she snaps and becomes physical, like in one hilariously gruesome scene involving a dentist, its genuinely shocking at just how far she's willing to go. The humanity of Mildred, however, occasionally peeks through her untethered indignation during quieter moments; like a monologue she has after spotting a lone deer at her daughter's burial site, and a few surprisingly tender moments opposite Harrelson, who brings emotional nuance and humor to what could have been the standard issue town chief role.
This attention to character shading--which also includes key supporting turns from Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, and John Hawkes--elevates McDonagh's writing a notch above the more predictable murder mystery subplot. As a narrative, Three Billboards doesn't necessarily go anywhere revelatory, and even concludes on an ambiguous note, but it's our time spent with these characters that matters. The film seems to be getting at finding a moral order amidst the despair, even if that moral order is tweaked or demented. Most of the people depicted here have awful tendencies; and in the case of Rockwell's bumbling fool, harbor legitimate racism and violence, but McDonagh doesn't apologize for their actions. Instead, the film holds seemingly contradictory elements in tandem. For example, how much do we root for Mildred when clearly she has allowed her undeniable pain to overtake any sense of rationality? How can we see Rockwell's bigoted cop turn a corner and offer a semblance of what could be considered a "good deed", when he's so clearly reprehensible?
The answer to these questions seems to be held in the picture's center-piece sequence; a confrontation between Mildred and Willoughby inside an interrogation room. What begins as a darkly comic series of back and forth jabs quickly turns into an intensely heated argument, culminating in a splash of blood. Without giving too much away, the way both characters react to the sudden shift speaks to McDonagh's thematic methodology; with small glimpses of vulnerability being more shocking than any of Mildred's self-righteous crusading.
However, for all its crackling performances and razor-sharp writing, Three Billboards is often clumsy in other areas. A brief flashback involving Mildred's teenage daughter is unnecessary at best, and emotionally manipulative at worst. Meanwhile, Lucas Hedge's role as Mildred's son is given short shrift in the third act where he all but completely disappears from the proceedings. A few more scenes exploring his obvious grief over losing his sister and the overwhelming frustration with his mother's actions would have helped round out the family dynamic. There's also the unfortunate addition of a 19-year-old female airhead that Mildred's ex-husband, played by John Hawkes, is dating as a cover for his own internal anguish. It's the one instance of obvious caricature where McDonagh is clearly laughing at a character rather than with them. It's an easy joke and recycled far too many times to be tolerable.
Still, Three Billboards succeeds as a film about channeling our anger at the world while also being imprisoned by that anger. In our sensitive times, it dares to provoke the audience with vicious hate speech and freewheeling characters operating outside the confines of traditional screenwriting. These people are flawed, messy, and in many cases, irrevocably damaged. Such is reality. Such is life.