Martin McDonagh continues to exemplify the very best in screenwriting with his third feature film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Leaning more towards In Bruges than 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh delivers another ensemble cast that brings a nuanced darkness and humor to Midwestern America. Anchored by one of Frances McDormand’s best performances, Three Billboards takes itself to Hell and back in order to present a textured portrayal of grief and culpability in a small community.
McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who is fed up with the town of Ebbing, Missouri’s police department not having found out who raped and murdered her daughter seven months prior. She notices three unused billboards, and rents them out for the year to single out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and serve as a reminder of a terrible crime unsolved. Much of the strife within Three Billboards comes from how people react to the signs, and how Mildred carries herself despite being opposed constantly by the volatile Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and the rest of the Ebbing community.
While the narrative remains fairly simplistic, McDonagh focuses on Mildred and her suffering, while still keeping the dark humor that he has always done well. She’s extremely impulsive, but only when it makes sense to be, which serves as an excellent foil to Dixon, who is also impulsive, but in a much more dangerous and unrestrained way — after all, he’s known around town for beating up people of color for no reason. That is just one of the ways in which the film explores ideas of racism, along with notions of culpability, sexism, and hope. It’s all par for the course with McDonagh, who used the same single-character portrait in In Bruges when Colin Farrell’s character struggled with seeking redemption. McDonagh knows how to mine his characters for subtext, and he uses the characters around them to do so.
Most interesting is Mildred’s relationship with Chief Willoughby, as both seem to share a mutual understanding and appreciation of each other. Her singling him out is just a thing she had to do, and the way the film keeps their relationship very business-like is commendable when other characters have so much intensity in how they react to the billboards. It also helps that Harrelson’s performance is the kind of calm, funny, and just-dramatic-enough presence that works well and keeps the audience on both sides of the fight. We all want to see justice, but what Three Billboards is more interested in is talking about culpability and redemption. Justice is on everyone’s minds, but it’s the secondary components of it that elevate the narrative and take into account all the characters surrounding the case.
Also par for the course are intense moments of violence, which McDonagh employs very sparingly throughout — just enough so that he can subvert violent expectations while still letting violence provide both humor and/or tension. Some moments are gleefully violent, while others condemn it wholly, but never does it feel like violence is the answer — it’s a means to an end. McDonagh has wrestled with violence in all his previous films, and always leaves the viewer with the same struggle: is it worth the suffering? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is another huge accomplishment from the acclaimed writer/director, and provides Harrelson, Rockwell, and of course, McDormand, with some of the best roles and performances they’ve had in a long time. It’s a violent world out there, and McDonagh is here to show that even in the darkest moments there can still be a glimmer of hope.