Sometimes there is only one thing that feels certain in these times, and that is we live in angry times. Righteous indignation and unfocused rage play across our headlines day after day on big scales and small scales. And to that end, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a portrait of America in 2017. As usual, writer/director Martin McDonagh has a lot on his mind, and this film manifests those as narrative twists and turns on otherwise clichéd situations. It makes the film an entertaining pitch black comedy, but left an acidic taste in my mouth.
A half year prior to the events of the film, Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) was murdered, and raped as she was dying. Her mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand) still grieves and rages about this tragedy, and the lack of leads and arrests in the case are preventing her from feeling closure. So she buys three billboards not far from her home calling out the town’s top cop, Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for the lack of action. However, the sheriff is an honorable man who seems to be trying his best with the resources he has. Sadly, one of those resources is Jason (Sam Rockwell), a hotheaded, potentially racist, and downright stupid police officer. Like many others in Ebbing, Jason is protective of the Sheriff, as is Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes). All of these factors turns Mildred’s quest into a sort of chess match against Willoughby and the rest of the town. Move and countermove, the battle is waged across the hearts and minds of Ebbing.
Of course, this takes a toll on Mildred, her relationship with her son (Lucas Hedges), and begins to consume her life. Reducing Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri to a tale of a woman consumed by a quest for vengeance would do McDonagh a disservice. Like the rest of his work that I am familiar with (his two previous films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, as well as a college production of The Cripple of Inishman that I quite enjoyed), Billboards continues to be about characters who may be familiar to us based on the typical conventions of genre, but also possess an acute sense of self-awareness. Our protagonists are very aware of who they are and what effect they are (trying) to have on the world. It comes through in Mildred’s weighing of options for even her most rash decisions, in the words of Willoughby, and most surprisingly, in the arc of Jason.
“Depiction is not endorsement” is a mantra that seems to be more and more in the conversation surrounding provocative filmmaking with enough mainstream appeal to garner such conversation. It rears again in Billboards, which ends on a note that is both purposefully ambiguous but also pitch black. The film certainly takes Mildred to a place where her actions are not as sympathetic as when she is putting up billboards, and it redeems other characters, and shows exactly why everything is a complete mess in our society all the time. We see the cycle of pain and anger spiral around and around Ebbing, but of course there is no easy resolution. But McDonagh—bravely?—does not offer an obvious moral lesson. After a while, consequences that seem random (one character is fired from their job, but they should absolutely be in prison) pile up a little too high, and the film loses its cohesion.
But Three Billboards is absolutely worth seeing. The entire cast is absolutely fantastic (with one exception who seems miscast), with Harrelson’s unexpectedly grounded performance providing a perfect balance to Rockwell and McDormand. Sam Rockwell is always great, and few people play stupid better, but he also brings a huge amount of depth to a character that at first seems to be barely more than a living cartoon.
Similar could be said about Frances McDormand’s performance as well. Playing an angry mother allows her to go give a performance with rightfully huge moments, but we also very easily see her calculating side as well as her more maternal side. Mildred takes glee in poking others in just the right way, and the way that McDormand captures that on her face is deliciously incredible, the kind of things that make you rub your palms together in anticipation of what she is going to do next.
Because of McDonagh’s writing and the excellent performances, Billboards is one of the funniest films of the year. Mining a premise that would otherwise be stark and maudlin (like Wind River) gives it its comedic tone. The film takes the subjects within seriously enough, but allows the humor to shine some light in the darkest of situations, making this an entertaining ride throughout.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a complicated film to digest, and even a few days later, it is much easier to describe its virtues over its weaknesses, but it is worth discovering for one’s self.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.