The Brilliance of Three Billboards Arrives in Moose Jaw
The relationship between the public and the police is one of the major things under scrutiny in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film which is ruthlessly brutal and affecting. It’s directed by Martin McDonagh, whose previous films, the fantastic In Bruges, and the pretty good Seven Psychopaths, are known for combining serious and grim subject matter with black comedy. And while there is a darkly comic edge to this film, it’s by far his most serious project, and his most excellent.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), in an effort to raise awareness and reopen the rape-murder case of her daughter, pays for three billboards outside the town of Ebbing, Missouri to explicitly shame the law enforcement for not solving it. This is met with backlash, considering the billboards specifically attack Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who in addition to being a well-liked figure in the community, is suffering from terminal cancer. The film focuses on Mildred becoming a pariah because of this, and the impact it has on the town, the police force, and herself.
Mildred Hayes is Frances McDormand’s single greatest character since Fargo. She’s determined, resilient, and fearless, as she speaks her mind authoritatively and defends herself ferociously. But at the same time she’s a grieving and frustrated mother, remorseful over her antagonistic relationship with her daughter when she was alive. McDormand is of course terrific at imparting Mildred’s wit, but also conveys an extremely hurt person, who’s been through a lot of turmoils, even before the murder. She’s a rich and compelling protagonist who you sympathize with, but she’s complex in her actions, often going to extreme measures that can’t be justified, making her all the more human and interesting. And no one could have played this part like McDormand. Woody Harrelson is great too. It would have been easy to make his character a corrupt or uncaring cop, in perfect synch with the implication Mildred perpetuates with her billboards. But he’s actually a genuinely caring guy, unfairly targeted, and with a great sense of humour. McDonagh reunites with another Seven Psychopaths star, as Sam Rockwell plays Willoughby’s subordinate Officer Dixon; and Rockwell proves here why he’s one of the most underrated character actors in Hollywood today. Though Dixon initially appears to be a comic relief idiot cop with a possibly racist past and capable of being a real scumbag, his arc is taken in some unpredictable directions, and Rockwell turns out one of his all-time greatest performances. The supporting cast is full of talent too, as Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea delivers exceptionally as Mildred’s son, who’s also offended by the billboards; and John Hawkes is quite a presence as her ex-husband. There are also good turns from Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, and a surprising Peter Dinklage.
The subject matter of this movie is certainly difficult, but it’s well-handled. Because as with most of his scripts, McDonagh injects a great degree of personality into his writing. The comic moments don’t detract from the heavily serious scenes or the honest tone; instead they flow rather seamlessly. The dialogue is very clever, extremely enticing, and true to each character. And McDonagh has such an understanding of his characters that he’s willing to go to some very tough places, like in one monologue Mildred delivers to a priest for example, that’s terrifically composed yet utterly venomous. It gets across a very blunt point, and the whole story is really quite pointed. This is a veritably socially conscious film. It discusses the relationship between the police and the people directly affected by crime in a way not really explored in film before. For comic or serious effect, accountability is brought up, how the law pursues rape and sexual abuse is alluded to, and the movie asks what destructiveness can accomplish. While the people of Ebbing generally respect their law enforcement, Mildred is more cynical, is perfectly willing to call them out, and most importantly, is more frustrated. Throughout the movie, characters deal with frustration tied to grief, remorse, and the chance, if only slight, for justice. It’s in this that the movie is most intelligent and to this theme that growth is built on.
Carter Burwell’s score is great, the atmosphere is really nailed, and the way the movie ultimately ends is not what you’d expect, proving much more thoughtful, uncertain, and evocative than what’s typically anticipated. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an outstanding film! It’s a movie that forces you into the shoes of someone who’s lost so much and is fed up with feeling powerless, and it whole-heartedly earns your investment. It eschews convention, has no interest in providing easy answers, but rather provokes questions and conversation. With a brilliant screenplay by a brilliant director, an original story that’s focussed and relentless, and engaging characters portrayed by a radiant cast led by an indomitable Frances McDormand at her finest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is going to stick around for a long time.