Trouble with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
In the past two years, popular television and film have seen a thematic shift from despicable antiheroes to warmhearted stories about likable people, perhaps as a counter against current events. NBC’s sophomore series This is Us, a family drama, and ABC’s freshman show The Good Doctor, a medical drama that focuses on an autistic surgeon, are strong evidence of this, and some of the year’s top-rated movies are also feel-good, such as The Big Sick and Wonder Woman. But while the antihero may be on its way out, it is definitely not dead yet, as Frances McDormand demonstrates brilliantly in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
An antihero with nothing left to lose, McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a mother whose teenage daughter was sexually assaulted and murdered seven months earlier. Upset with the incompetent local police department led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), Hayes rents out three weathered billboards on the outskirts of town calling out the department for not making any arrests. These billboards, one which says, “Raped While Dying,” and another that calls out Willoughby by name, stirs civil unrest and local news stories among the small, folksy town of Ebbing, Missouri—the first dominoes to fall in a string of events caused by these titular billboards.
Hardened by her daughter’s tragedy, Hayes lives with her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), in a nightmare where her daughter escapes her thoughts—seeing her ex-husband with an attractive 19-year-old doesn’t help either. Renting out the billboards seems to be the first major action she takes in being proactive instead of grieving, and Hayes is on a rampage, lashing out against all around her in numb fury, including dentists, priests, and Robbie’s classmates.
But, as the billboards suggest, the cops are the object of her attention, whom she accuses of being “too busy torturing black folks” to solve real crimes. One cop in the department is Officer Dixon, a comic-boy loving mama’s boy played by the astounding Sam Rockwell, who is the film’s strongest character in a film full of stellar performances. In one of the film’s memorable scenes, Dixon tells Hayes that black people are now referred to as “people of color,” but makes no comment on the torturing part of the accusation—a good example of the social commentary on which Three Billboards treads but never indulges.
Once the premise settles in, director Martin McDonagh, best known for Seven Psychopaths in 2012, steers the film toward a similar violent direction that evokes Fargo, a film to which McDormand has also lent her talents. It also feels like a companion film to Manchester by the Sea, where our lead character deals with an unmanageable amount of grief, except Hayes becomes aggressive and takes action instead of the path of passivity and ambivalence that Casey Affleck’s character takes. Lucas Hedges also plays essentially the exact same character from Manchester, no doubt a nod to his role in the film which earned him an Oscar nomination.
Three Billboards no doubt aspires for similar acclaim, as the film is carried by its performances, led by McDormand, Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, and Rockwell. Most characters have their moments—aside from Hedges, who feels a little underutilized—but are in many ways both likable and reasonable. McDormand is definitely the star of the film, testing us to see how far we can sympathize with her cathartic, confused journey—which temporarily takes the form of a literal blaze of glory when she, in her grief, concocts molotov cocktails. The film’s first acts are unpredictable and don’t settle into routine plot, and it borders on absurdity and surrealism in the final act, with McDormand’s character realizing the depth of the burden she’s had to face.
Three Billboards is often hilarious, at times laugh out loud funny. Its humor can be subtle in its awkward conversations, and the little one-off lines just before the scene switches have a nuance and purpose behind them. The film has sharp, if not fully committed, commentary on race, police reputation, and media without hitting you over the head with it, and invites the viewer to decide their stances for themselves. But it all serves a purpose in Ebbing through its complex web of characters and a story that leads you one way and then unveils another. These twists result in McDonagh’s most complete film to date, and one worth the ride.
Release | 10 November 2017 (US)
Genre | Comedy, Crime, Drama
Director | Martin McDonagh
Writer | Martin McDonagh
Main Cast | Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage
Rating / Runtime | R / 1h 55m
Personal Rating | 9/10