Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review
In Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, anger is a pervasive energy; it’s not treated as a disease that needs to be cured. More often than not, Hollywood portrays anger as a sin; only through acceptance and understanding can true happiness be achieved. However, how can you not be angry at an unfair world? Life beats you down. Life will give cancer to the young. Life is racist, cruel, and sexist. You should fight back and throw a few punches; sometimes that rage is the only thing that can give rise to other emotions, like empathy and understanding. No, anger is not a disease; it’s a method for comprehending life.
Frances McDormand (in her best film performance since Fargo) stars as the angry and cynical Mildred Hayes, whose daughter Angela was raped and murdered less than a year ago. However, due to lack of matching DNA, the case has gone cold. This coupled with the lack of communication from the police sparks a burning anger within Mildred. One day, she notices three barren billboards on a rarely-traveled road. She rents all three of them to ask the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) why there are no answers. The local media becomes interested in the billboards, igniting a series of events that embroil not only Chief Willoughby but one of his more loathsome officers (Sam Rockwell). The supporting cast is rounded out by Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Clarke Peters, and John Hawkes.
Despite the straightforward nature of that description, the script is anything but. The mystery surrounding Angela’s death would have dominated any other version of this story. However, McDonagh chooses instead to focus on the cause and effect of Mildred’s choices rather than the crime and resolution of Angela’s murder. Nearly all of the characters are deeply flawed, especially McDormand’s Mildred and Rockwell’s Dixon. Both of these characters have been beaten down by life, and are filled with anger. Mildred channels this anger into solving her daughter’s murder. Dixon, on the other hand, has very little idea how to use this anger; this lack of focus eventually costs him his job.
In contrast to his usual nice guy roles, Rockwell is quite effective as a racist loose-cannon cop. His weathered, pudgy visage gives the appearance of a man who drinks himself to sleep every night. Rockwell has a big arc in this film and pulls no punches. Harrelson is fine as Chief Willoughby, but this film belongs to McDormand. The way she utilizes internal language to reveal the pain beneath the rage is simply stunning. Mildred is a contradiction; she’s being torn apart by grief and rage, yet is unyielding in her search for justice. McDormand is fantastic throughout the film but truly shines in the minor beats; the curl of a lip to fight back tears or a downward glance to keep from punching someone. This is easily the most completely realized character in the film, and I doubt that any other actress could have pulled off the role.
Of course, McDonagh deserves credit not only for directing McDormand but giving her a fantastic part in such an intelligent script. Peace with the injustice of our world is a common theme in cinema, but it’s often resolved too easily. McDonagh’s script offers no easy answers — no clear-cut heroes and villains. As the film weaves its narrative, you will begin to question Mildred and root for Dixon. This is the greatest trick McDonagh pulls with this film; the world is far more complex than most films would have you think. In terms of technical accomplishment, McDonagh is operating on a new level here. The way he uses a fantastic score from Coen regular Carter Burwell and Ben Davis’ cinematography is stunning.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like one of those rare films that are both profound and grounded. It tackles the thought that not every sucker punch life tosses at us can teach us tolerance. A daughter shouldn’t die at all, much less in such a barbaric fashion. But how do we channel that anger at an unjust world? Very few films can pull this off without feeling manipulative. Very few films are this good.