Every once in a while, we need a film that takes unfiltered, but finely focused rage and aims it directly at the heart of whatever it is that is scaring us as a people. Even if we can’t destroy what it is that terrifies us or inspires such anger, perhaps together we can make it a little less scary, in the hopes of defusing the intensity of our emotions. There’s a part of me that isn’t a little bit surprised that it takes the perspective of an outsider—in this case, UK playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths)—to show us America in all its foul-mouthed faded glory and hopeful spirit.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the tragicomedy of the year. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a mother who has been grieving for so long after the rape and murder of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton, only seen in brief flashbacks) a year prior that her sadness has been replaced by outrage at the local law enforcement’s inability to capture the person or people who did this to her child. In the hope of jumpstarting the stagnant investigation, Mildred pays to have three consecutive billboards on a mostly unused stretch of road near her home bear the message that the crime remains unsolved, specifically calling on Sheriff William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to explain this travesty.
Mildred knows she is not the mother of the year, but she clearly feels stuck in a bitterness spiral by having this unresolved thing in her life hovering over her. Her son Robbie (Lucas Hodges, also in Lady Bird, and last seen as the nephew in Manchester by the Sea) is also hurting, suffering from a free-floating anxiety rooted in everything from being bullied at school because of the billboards to missing his sister, who was something of a buffer between him and his mother. The town reacts immediately to the billboards, although there is nothing anyone can legally do to have them removed other than appeal to Mildred’s good graces—something she has in short supply.
Because Willoughby is particularly well liked in the community, he has a great number of defenders, chief of which is his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a man with a barely hidden racist streak who has been known to torture suspects (usually of a non-white variety). I immediately wondered why McDonagh would cast someone as talented as Rockwell to play such a one-dimensional character, but as Three Billboards moves forward, you’ll discover that it takes an actor of his notable abilities to tackle the nuances that crop up in Dixon.
Aside from Dixon, residents of the town begin to take shape and become individuals rather than a collective hive mind. We get to know the manager of the advertising company that owns the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones) and his assistant (Kerry Condon); the sheriff’s wife Anne (Abbie Cornish); Dixon’s mother (Sandy Martin) who manipulates her son and fills his mind with horrible thoughts that make him do truly dumb shit; and good-natured local James (Peter Dinklage), who has an ill-advised crush on Mildred. The deeper we get into these characters’ minds, the more the town and film takes shape and feels more believable as a place.
One of the more telling interactions in Three Billboards is between Mildred, her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) and his new girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving), whom Mildred seems genuinely concerned about (when she isn’t annoyed at how young the girl is). The ex-couple have a complicated relationship since their daughter died—they share in the grief, but it often gets diluted and distorted by their hatred of each other. Their scenes together are ferocious and difficult to watch at times, but ultimately they reveal that being a loving parent trumps most other severe emotions.
The one person in town who seems the least concerned about the billboards is Willoughby himself, who sympathizes with Mildred’s plight, as he goes over with her the reasons the investigation stalled, which does absolutely nothing to sway her or temper her feelings. She doesn’t really hate the sheriff, but calling out anyone else in such a manner wouldn’t have the same impact. Another reason Willoughby doesn’t take the situation personally is that he has more important concerns in his life, most notably his declining health. But he does indeed take it upon himself to pull the case file and take a fresh look at the facts.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri takes a few unexpected turns in its storytelling that aren’t designed so much to throw the audience off balance as to remind us that life doesn’t follow a screenplay template. Even when a would-be suspect (Brendan Sexton III) does present himself late in the film, we can never get comfortable enough in this scenario to assume anything about it will wrap itself up neatly. A new chief investigator (Clarke Peters) is brought in, and even he must acknowledge that the case may be a lost cause. And whether we like it or not, McDonagh give us an all-too-believable slice-of-life story, set in a small Midwest town where horrible crimes often go unsolved, especially when the family in question wasn’t especially well liked or respected.
The pain and suffering in Ebbing runs deep, but there’s a wicked funny sense of humor that rises to the surface as a result. McDormand exudes grieving and pitch-black humor in a single line of dialogue, and her work here is so skillful, finely tuned and essential that it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her, especially when she’s on the attack (an encounter at the local dentist’s office might be one of the greatest film moments of the year). Embrace Three Billboards, hold it tight, even if you feel like it’s trying to punch you in the face. And in the process, you might be able to share a fraction of the resonance at work in it.
The films opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.