A daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), has been raped and burned alive. No one has been arrested in the 7 months since it has happened. An enraged mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand) rents three billboard and puts, “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrest”, “How come, Chief Willoughby.”
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri unfolds as a typical revenge vigilantly ploy, and could have stayed so under normal direction and screenwriting. Instead, it gets turned into one of the best pictures of the year.
McDormand as Mildred, gives the performance of her career. That’s an overused term, ‘performance of a career,’ but it’s true here. And yes, I’m thinking of Fargo too while I type this. I believe McDormand is the front runner for Best Actress. Mildred’s character could have gone two ways, either the typical grieving mother screaming for answers, or the town “bitch.” McDormand does both, and adds even more. Mildred is the town bitch who’s shaming a popular sheriff into investigating more, she’s also the grieving mother, and she screams, but she’s also a funny, caring, and determined. She’s a woman who uses wit and guile to find justice, whatever that allusive word means.
Three Billboards’ complexity doesn’t end there. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) could have easily been the typical small town sheriff who’s ignorant of everyone else’s feelings and just wants his laid-back job to stay laid back. Instead, Harrelson brings a warmth and understanding to the character. He’s not a man who is happy with the status quo; it hurts him that he hasn’t found Angela’s killer.
The cast is filled out with other outstanding performances from Lucas Hedges, who plays Mildred’s son Robbie. Hedges, is currently on the run-of-runs in his very young career, already appearing in what appears to be three possible Best Picture nominees (Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird being the others). Also, Peter Dinklage plays a fulfilling role as James, one of the few people in Ebbing who sees the humanity in Mildred.
Most of all, it’s Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is the 1B to Mildred’s 1A. Dixon is a racist bumbling idiot with a temper problem. His character could have stayed in neutral. Instead, while watching Three Billboards, it is often easy to forget that Dixon is a racist. Much of that has to do with the redeeming work Rockwell pulls off. There’s probably no character who’s easier to empathize with than Dixon, other than Mildred. The screenwriting also to be given high marks, even in a world with Trump, it’s still hard to make a racist look good.
Three Billboards finds its footing in the shades of grey. There are a few missteps, we never see Hedges’s life in school and Willoughby’s widow is mostly a stock character. Nevertheless, the other characters are so well developed, there needs to be some stock to fill the background. The development of those characters can be placed at the feet of the screenwriter and director, Martin McDonagh. His screenplay doubles and re-doubles upon itself. The deeper we go into the film, the more the characters are split from their static outlines. McDonagh is like a Pointillist painter, configuring his human figures in an amalgam of morally defining acts. He balances these trials with comedic gold. Dixon offers most of the comedic charm. In a scene that could come out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Mildred decides to light the police station on fire. As a fire burns all around him, Dixon is listlessly listening to music on his music player, while reading a letter from Willoughby.
The film is a portrait of grief. It’s also a dark comedy wrapped in vulgarity. Most of the film is filled with some expletives, a few occurring in one scene (when Mildred rents her billboards). However, it’s also the human need to have answers. It’s also the human reality that those answers don’t always come. McDonagh could have made Three Billboards into a film that’s solely about justice. Instead, justice is the one character that doesn’t show-up. It’s the one soul that doesn’t live in Ebbing, Missouri.
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Photo Credit: Phase9Entertainment