This is not a film for everyone. Let’s get that out of the way. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a drama with moments of dark comedy that ends up showing us more about the human condition than could be gleaned in years of college study.
Frances McDormand gives her latest powerhouse performance as Mildred Hayes, a woman seeking answers and justice after the brutal death of her teenage daughter. Law enforcement hasn’t been able to do the job after over half a year, and Mildred wants answers and retribution. Her first action is to utilize three dilapidated billboards that stand at the edge of town for a particularly edgy clarion call.
Her words sting the core of the town. Particularly since they target the beloved chief of police William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). It’s not that Willoughby doesn’t want to get to the bottom of the heinous crime, he just hasn’t come up with any viable suspects. To add illness to injury, he’s battling cancer. So the townspeople are sticking up for him in more ways than one.
And then there’s Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). On the surface, he’s the epitome of a redneck cop. Dixon thrives on that hard-headed attitude and it doesn’t look like much will change his mind. He’d sooner throw a guy through a window – specifically the guy who took Mildred’s money to post the billboards — then soften his stance. And we think we’ve seen that character before, but we’ll get a deeper look when he loses his job on the force.
So those are the three major pieces of the film. In effect, they are three billboards advertising what seem to be obvious messages. But it’s how they interact that takes the film beyond mere avenging-angel or maudlin movie-of-the-week conventions. Hayes displays righteous anger, but her nurturing instinct won’t stay buried when the chief of police throws up blood during the middle of an intense argument. And the chief might be able get through to the granite head of his second in command, even if it seems too late when he does so.
Dixon gets caught in the crossfire – actually more like just plain ol’ fire – when Hayes takes her fury to a whole other and definitely illegal level. It’s the film’s turning point and a lot hinges on Rockwell and McDormand doing a lot more than spouting writer/director Martin McDonagh’s well-crafted comeback lines. We understand that Mildred’s anger is leading her down a destructive path (“This time the chick ain’t losing,” she declares unequivocally) — and why Dixon might finally shift the other way (“It looks like we got a war on our hands,” he says … and he’s finally got something right).
Of course, Dixon’s redemption won’t come without a price. The audience almost demands he pay it. That won’t play out exactly as expected either. There’s foreshadowing about the murderer being overheard boasting in a bar, but it can’t be that simple in a film this complex.
It’s not only McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson who get to flesh out their characters. McDonagh has long been known for penning complicated roles. An actor getting just one line of dialogue might provide the most insightful moment in his movie. Three Billboards brims over with these kinds of depictions. Just to name two — Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) proves there are no small parts and Clarke Peters (The Wire) completely upends the fragile balance of the police station, for the better.
Roles that would be considered thankless in other films – say the young girlfriend of Mildred’s abusive ex-husband played by Samara Weaving – reveal more layers. No one is completely good and no one is completely bad, there are different shades up and down the spectrum. That’s the point Three Billboards drives home. Because that’s the way it is in the world in which we live.
It’s clear McDonagh’s come a very long way in a short time. Just review his progression from cult favorite In Bruges to here. He’s amassed quite the repertory company in the process of recording his early trifecta too. McDormand, hailing from the Coen Brothers’ offbeat sensibility and signing on for the first time, fits his style to a T. Zeljko Ivanek, who has acted in all three of his films but without a “major” role, gets to utter one of the choice lines as the desk sergeant – “Don’t say ‘what,’ Dixon, when she comes in calling you a ‘fuckhead.’” We should look forward to him getting a Rockwellian part in a future McDonagh production.
McDormand and Rockwell are poised for possible Oscars, having scooped up various acting prizes this award season. But whether or not they win, I’m ready to take out three billboards right now proclaiming McDonagh to be the brightest star on Hollywood’s horizon.