For much of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh’s third feature film, there are tonal shifts. McDonagh balances the witty, brash humor of the films lead, with stirring and powerful drama. Normally, tonal shifts as jarring as the ones found here, are a good way to distract an audience’s focus. In the hands of McDonagh, it pays off in a brilliant way. Three Billboards is McDonagh’s best film to date, and a timely one that explores some of the most topical issues we deal with in society today. The In Bruges director, who is also an accomplished playwright, is a master at writing real dialogue and he dials it up in this film. Three Billboards is one of the best films of the year.
The film opens with Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) staring at three billboards on a deserted road. They are rundown, and strangely metaphorical of a world that has seemingly left the small town of Ebbing, Missouri behind. They valley in which they sit is blanketed in fog and Mildred stares longingly at them. It’s about the only moment of tranquility in a rather hectic cinematic experience. The calm before the storm if you will. And yet, it is an important opening scene. Right away, you can feel the pain within Mildred’s eyes.
The plot of the film kicks into gear when Mildred visits Red, the owner of the billboards and rents them out. Right away we get a sense of the comedic, but dark tone McDonagh is trying to establish. He sets up the movie with almost no time to waste. Mildred is a recently divorced mother who’s daughter was raped and murdered seven months prior. In response to what she perceives to be police neglecting the case, she puts up three billboards calling out the town’s chief of police, played by Woody Harrelson. With a eye catching scarlet background, the twenty foot high bolded black words read “Still no arrests” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”. The third’s powerful message is one I won’t spoil here.
McDormand is fierce, bold and commanding as Hayes. The Oscar winner likely has paved the way for at the most another nomination. Aside from her daughter being murdered, we empathize with much of what Ms. Hayes has to say. Reminiscent of Peter Finch in the great film Network, Mildred is mad as hell, and she isn’t going to take it anymore. Once the billboards go up, it sparks an immediate reaction from the police. The man in question himself, as Mildred astutely points out, wastes no time in approaching her to complain about the content of the billboards. Mildred wants justice, she sees the injustices for some minorities and wonders why time is spent on “torturing black folk” and not on finding her daughters murderer.
We as an audience aren’t blind to the difficulties each side of this spectrum is facing. Of course we want justice for a woman who’s daughter was brutally murdered. Yet, as McDonagh’s screenplay does so well, we understand both sides. Willoughby is a genuine man. He points out there are some cases in which you don’t catch a break, this is one of them. Even through struggles of his own, Willoughby does do his due diligence upon Mildred’s request via the billboards.
At the center of the town outrage over the billboards, is Officer Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell turns in some of his career best work as a racist, bully who is the common stereotype of a southern and simple minded person. Rockwell has an oral history in the film of past issues with brutality. Still, McDonagh isn’t afraid to give Dixon his redemption, and a satisfying arc that never feels cheap or overly predictable. Dixon’s character is rather believable as well, and his interactions with the towns residents are ones that are benefitted by the acting of everyone involved. These characters know each other well, perhaps for years, and the small town vibe is what adds that subtle element of reality to the storytelling.
The performances are perhaps the biggest stand outs of Three Billboards. McDormand in particular is stunning and heartbreaking as Mildred. Rockwell, Harrelson and McDormand all have terrific chemistry. However, the rest of supporting cast are revelations. The aforementioned Red, the owner of the ad company responsible for the billboards is played by Caleb Landry Jones. Jones is one of those actors who commits to anything he does. Since his brilliant performance in the Safdie brothers Heaven Knows What, Jones has become a chameleon type actor who blends into any film he’s in. Also among the supporting cast are John Hawkes, Mildred’s abusive ex husband, Peter Dinklage, “the town midget” who has crush on Mildred, Abbie Cornish, chief Willoughby’s wife, and Lucas Hedges, Mildred’s son.
The film’s runtime feels about right as the film never overstays it’s welcome. To that point, there are some extended moments that could’ve had a bit more dramatic impact if they were shorter. McDonagh doesn’t leave much left for the imagination. Rather, he spills everything out on the table. In this case, it works as the film progresses. The nihlism found in the film can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, and if you’re not used to McDonagh’s style and the stories he writes, you may find Three Billboards a bit too cynical.
McDonagh injects some of the funniest moments in a film this year into his latest. There are moments within the film that proves his observations on everyday moments are sharp and ultimately grounded in reality. What he does so well, is taking moments where if you read them in a book, you wouldn’t think twice about its comedic or dramatic effect. But when seen on screen, it’s a brilliant moment. His grasp on the reality of life is unlike any many other filmmakers today. You never feel that the lines being spoken are written. That grounded, realistic aspect of Three Billboards coupled with its brilliant performances are what make it so special.
Have you seen the movie? Are you looking forward to it? Don’t forget to comment and tell us your thoughts! Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in select theaters on November 10.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Rated: R (for for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references)
Runtime: 115 Minutes
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges
Directed by: Martin McDonagh