Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the most cleverly constructed films of the year with a focus on the cyclical nature of violence and the pain of enduring an unexpected loss. A first-rate cast delivers writer/director Martin McDonagh’s punchy dialogue with aplomb, but are required to dig deep when their glibness of the first half gives way to real soul searching as the film navigates its way to an open-ended conclusion.
A few years back this would have been made as a comforting if not offbeat film, a feisty divorcee Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) amateur sleuths the case of her murdered daughter with a relaxed but confounded Sherriff Wiloughby (Woody Harrelson) eventually coming around to helping her track down the bad guys and it would all end in a third act full of shoot-em-up action. All suspensefully staged and tastefully fulfilling audience comfort with violence as long as it is only being visited upon only the truly evil. I would love to see that movie right now and I bet Frances McDormand would still get an Oscar nomination for it. A small town full of eccentric personalities and at the centre of it all a charismatic strong mama bear exacting justifiable revenge. As we left the theatre it’s possible, no matter how gruesomely depicted, we might not have even spared much thought for the murdered daughter that kicked off everything.
Three Billboards though thinks an awful lot about that daughter and a million others who disappeared or were found dead one morning. Their murderers never discovered, never brought to justice. Their violence acts unanswered, stewing away in those left behind. Not just murders either, throughout the film there is anger displayed for a lot of things whether it be long-term prognosis from a Doctor, a date being embarrassed to be seen with you, or in most cases just the way someone who knows you really well can say something that hurts you and how much you can’t let that go unanswered. This is a film about how violence circles back around, the power of anger, the pain of regret but also about the strength of kindness and the delicacy of tolerance.
At the centre of it all is one of the great female performances of the year in Frances McDormand who not only conveys strength but also compassion. She’s far from a perfect person either but she’s trying. Harrelson as Sherrif Wiloughby seems to have realized he’s reached a stage in his career where he’s kind of beloved and leans into the role of mentor. The always reliable Sam Rockwell has one of the most complex roles as Officer Jason Dixon who is dimwitted and racist but as the film progresses proves capable of enormous growth. There’s a lot in the film and the performances about our better natures and how the right people can bring them out of us and how the wrong people can well…
Shot in North Carolina the film perfectly evokes how a small town community would take offence to a grieving mother placing three billboards outside of town that criticises the local sheriff. Staging the film in a small town also makes questions of how we fail to connect with each other in the modern age even more pointed. There’s some neat staging of action sequences and comic punchlines. Character actors like Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Zeljko Simi-Ivanek, Sandy Martin and Clarke Peters fill in the background of the people who make up the town populace with the most relevance to our main protagonist. Far from comforting it is a thought-provoking unpredictable film that offers no easy answers. Beneath the hilarious put-downs and standoffs there is amusing about what in the end is the right thing to do and that perhaps the only way we’ll find an answer is together.