The best movies, for me, are the ones that take you to unexpected places, both through the story, and visually, but also in my own head, making me think and question things I hadn’t considered before. As Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri unfolds it moved in surprising directions, shocked, surprised, and frustrated me. It’s bold, dark, hilarious, harrowing, uncomfortable, brilliant, and a hundred other superlatives I could throw at it, and will easily rank as one of my favorites for the year.
Anchored by a rich and multifaceted performance by Frances McDormand as Mildred, an abused wife and mother whose daughter was raped and murdered months before the movie begins, a crime still unsolved. When Mildred sees three tattered billboards unused on a lonely street, she plops some money down, and fires a salvo against the local police department on those billboards: Raped while Dying, Still No Arrests, How Come, Chief Willoughby? It’s a polarizing action that gets immediate attention from deputy police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and Chief Willoughby, played with a fierce dignity by Woody Harrelson.
The movie goes in surprising directions from there, and too much exposition on that would tarnish the experience, so I’ll remain aloof. The greatest strength of the film, are the rich characters. The battle of wills between Mildred and Willoughby could’ve been painted in strong black and white colors, but Mildred isn’t a hero, and Willoughby isn’t a villain, and the strongest feeling that comes across in their arguments is one of mutual respect. Dixon’s buffoonish behavior is played for laughs initially, only to expose an underlying reality that is both unforgiving, honest, and frustrating. Deep down, Three Billboards is mostly an exploration of two characters with unflinching anger, and their inability to process that. As characters continue to make decisions I didn’t agree with, I found myself mentally trying to justify actions I knew in my heart were wrong if only to stay comfortable rooting for the characters I wanted to root for.
McDormand is wonderful, waffling between her fierce determination, bone-dry barbs against anyone in earshot, and her compulsive need to keep everyone at arm’s length, including a son (Lucas Hedges) who isn’t exactly on her side, an abusive ex (John Hawkes) who is dating a dimwitted girl, a third Mildred’s age. Harrelson’s Willoughby is a family man dealing with his own issues, and is entirely too forgiving of the loose-cannon Dixon. Rockwell’s racist cop is an aggressive and unrepentant stereotype that is also, in a twisted way, the heart of the story. Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek, and Amanda Warren all have brief appearances, but each gets at least one moment of surprising impact.
Writer-Director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) is a successful playwright (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman, among others) known for his wit and violence, both of which are on full display in Billboards, but not quite in the expected ways. The direction is tight, with the camera boxing in characters at certain moments, capturing a full expanse in later ones. The art direction is great, with a keen eye for detail down to the comics that Dixon is reading. Seriously, everything about this movie is surprising and awesome and worth every adjective I can find.
My Grade – A