Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri marks the third directorial offering of playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh, known for his popular and unique body of work in theatre (The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Pillowman, etc.) as well as his darkly-comic feature films In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). As a whole, the best way in describing a Martin McDonagh film would be to imagine what would occur if one day Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers ever decided to collaborate on a project, and delivered to the screen with the combined pulp and revisionist style of Sam Peckinpah. The result? A film filled to the brim with profanity-filled wordplay, quotable one-liners, gleeful and horrible acts of violence, and all regularly centered around a compelling cast of rich and identifiable characters in stories of murder, retribution and (if they’re lucky) maybe even a possible redemption or two.
And while there are certainly sources to draw comparisons from, McDonagh’s style and voice in his films are very much his own. Particularly in his way of never being one to shy away from uncomfortable material or in his unorthodox attempts to draw any laughs out of such subject matter; some of which can be found teetering almost on the edge of nihilistic. But where McDonagh always shines, despite bloodshed and tears, is in the ways that his films always deliver a satisfying balance a genuine humor to add much-needed levity but never undermines the seriousness of the drama that unfolds or the circumstances his characters find themselves in.
Three Billboards follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced single-mother in the small one-stop town of Ebbing, still plagued with grief over the abduction, rape and murder of her teenaged daughter seven months prior. Furious with the apparent apathy of the local authorities in their handling of the investigation, Mildred decides to finally take action of her own, venting her anger in the form of three scandalizing billboards erected at the edge of town, messages directly targeted toward revered Sheriff, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), in order to finally see proper justice done. Following the inevitable media-coverage of such a project, the results of such actions earn Mildred and her family not only the ire of the local fuzz, but also the entire rural community; a challenge that Mildred is all too bitterly prepared to face.
If one thing can be said of McDonagh, his scripts are anything but predictable. In a premise that, on the surface, could be mistakenly viewed as the classic story of the lone figure challenging authority in the wake of personal tragedy, McDonagh negates and challenges any such cliches from the start. Whereas most stories of its type would place its efforts in seeking answers to such a traumatic experience as the murder, McDonagh prefers to direct focus toward the effect as opposed to the cause. Through arguably one of the best screenplays of the year, Three Billboards weaves a narrative of a solid gut-punch Southern rural drama, swimming in cutting social satire, all the while providing a truthful examination of human nature, anger and the ways in which people handle themselves in the face of powerless situations.
Like Mildred, it is only natural to assume that every wrong can be put to right if only given the proper motivation, but it is all too often it is found that even the determination and proceeding of noble goals often try to overshadow unfortunate reality. That sometimes what we wish we could take back is sadly unattainable, with nothing to do but to simply move forward with what we have. But lest one thinks that the film only seeks to send the message that “there’s no God, the world is empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to people”, think again. With clever writing and strong direction, McDonagh never leaves his audiences entirely without that little bit of hope. Demonstrating the ways that anger and rage, while certainly a danger, can also inspire a heartfelt basis of change even in light of overwhelming odds, or from the most unlikely sources, as further accomplished through truly brilliant performances.
Leading the show in almost the complete antithesis of her Oscar-winning role of Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996), Frances McDormand gives yet another powerhouse performance as Mildred Hayes, a truly defined character delivering more than a few laughs through quips, blows and glares all the while masking a clear underlying pain. Seeking understandable goals of personal justice, though also taking time see how such goals are approached with a self-perceived belief that the problems only stem from exterior sources. Acting opposite, Woody Harrelson gives some of his best work as the harsh yet likeable Sheriff Willoughby; fully identifying with the frustrations that a person of his position provides, all the while also dealing with frustrations of his own life in his attempts at reaching reasonable compromise within his surroundings. Supporting performances are top-notch, with an ensemble cast of almost too many stand-out characters to count provided by Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage and more. All managing to provide fun, poignant and even heartfelt personality to the small town of Ebbing, as well as relatable witnesses all with a voice to add to the overall madness on display.
But arguably the stand-out supporting performance to be had goes to fantastic character actor, Sam Rockwell, as Ebbing’s dim-bulbed deputy Jason Dixon. In quite possibly one of his very best performances, Rockwell takes on the impossible challenge of taking an angry, violent, bigoted mama’s boy, all the things you never want in a law enforcement officer, and convincingly fleshes out as one of the more surprisingly humorous and sympathetic characters throughout the course of the film. Whose actions and growth both through himself and those around him, in a unique story all his own, become almost as identifiable (if moreso) with that of Mildred’s; all paying true to McDonagh’s understanding that human beings are always never perfect, but that despite even the worst human flaws, there still remains ability to show the very best in people and all the ways they can surprisingly relate to us.
While it still remains early to say, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri stands as one of the best films of the year with all the trimmings to becoming a legitimate contender come award season. With McDonagh more than likely to once again receive nominations for Best Screenplay and perhaps even more; with hopeful further consideration as well to performances (McDormand and Rockwell, especially) and other production efforts. Carter Burwell once again delivers yet another fine score, contributing to the building atmosphere while blended intimately with classic Southern ballads and opera, and shared seamlessly with Ben Davis’ immersive cinematography. Capturing McDonagh’s vision of a small-town life that has its share of true ugliness but certainly not without an underlying if offbeat charm. An excellent character and social study, delivered to the screen with McDonagh’s unwavering energy and razor-sharp writing and executed with truly fantastic performances, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri takes audiences down the road to a place some may not always want to stay, but is more than deserving of repeated visits.