A blisteringly dark comedy from writer-director Martin McDonagh ("In Bruges," "Seven Psychopaths"), "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is fueled by the righteous anger that burns within Frances McDormand's incredible lead performance.
McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a single mother living in small-town Missouri. We learn that her daughter, Angela, was brutally murdered seven months prior, and with no leads and no suspects, the police have allowed the investigation grow cold. As the hope of any resolution dwindles, Mildred decides to rent three billboards on the outskirts of town, putting up a message calling out the local law enforcement and shaming them for their inaction.
It doesn't take long for people to take notice, and the attention her campaign earns pits Mildred against the town's police department, led by the respected Chief Willoughby (a wonderful Woody Harrelson) and his deputy, the doltish, bigoted Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). The billboards don't sit well with the rest of the town either, and the situation quickly spirals, eventually having deeper ramifications on the lives of everyone involved.
Before writing this review, I had the rare opportunity to see "Three Billboards" twice. The first time I saw it -- back in September at the Toronto International Film Festival -- I was sure I'd seen one of the very best films of the year. And I still thought it was great the second time around, but something had shifted slightly. The seams in its storytelling began to show: the overly constructed screenplay, the way characters are treated merely as props, and the way the plot hinges on a number of far-too-neat plot contrivances.
"Three Billboards" tells a story of anger, grief, and regret wrapped up in the timely issues of racism and police brutality. That McDonagh intentionally raises those topics while making the decision to sideline any characters of color makes it all the more frustrating. There are several black characters throughout the film, all with varying degrees of importance, but no real significance to the plot. They remain mostly in the background, and to a one, they're singularly virtuous, existing only to bear witness to wrongdoing, or cheer Mildred on in her crusade. It might have helped McDonagh's script to extend to them just a fraction of the complexity he gives to the major characters.
But for the most part, McDonagh makes sure that no one is entirely good or evil; the best of them have flaws and worst of them are allowed moments of redemption. He layers that ambiguity throughout his tale, challenging his audience by showing us humanity at its best and its worst, and in both cases asking us to extend some degree of empathy.
That McDonagh isn't going for complete realism with his tale is most evident in how much Mildred is able to get away without being arrested (even considering the fact that she's a 60ish-year-old white lady). Though the film remains on Mildred's side, it does question her methods at times, particularly as they take a turn for the vigilante. It considers the toll her quest for vengeance takes on those close to her, including her teenage son (Lucas Hedges).
The cast is uniformly excellent, and the film wouldn't work nearly as well without a trio of great performances from Harrelson, Rockwell, and McDormand. Whip-smart and tough as nails, Mildred is a role that showcases everything McDormand excels at, and she locates the emotion and vulnerability behind all the anger. It's as strong a role as her Oscar-winning turn in "Fargo," more than twenty years ago (though in many ways Mildred feels like the direct inverse of Marge Gunderson), and the performance will no doubt be part of any end-of-the-year awards discussion. Rockwell has an even more difficult task, playing a role that comes perilously close to caricature but making sure it never tumbles over that line. He's fantastic.
Brutal, funny, and sad, "Three Billboards" is a great but flawed movie that functions best as an exorcism of the deep-seated anger that's permeated our society. Everyone is pissed off at someone these days, and as that anger festers, the fissures in our country grow deeper every day. As a culture, we're deeply screwed up, but McDonagh suggests that if we can accept that and simply try to screw up in the right direction together, things might someday, eventually be OK. Despite my minor reservations, that alone might make it the film of the year. See it with someone you can have a long discussion (or maybe even a heated argument) with afterward.