Like many of acclaimed director-writer Martin McDonagh’s screenplays, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri weaves a complex and dark tale of hardship, with a tinge of Western sensitivity. Following the murder of her daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) shakes up an otherwise sleepy town with her bold billboards that aim to shed light on an otherwise ignored matter, much to the dismay of the town’s chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to whom the billboard’s messages are directed.
Though disagreeing is what they do best, what starts as a tumultuous relationship begins to transform into a deeper realisation for both Mildred and Bill, and a quasi-partnership is briefly formed. This is, however, soon quashed by the town’s trigger-happy, racial-slurring Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), whose immaturity leads to a barrel roll of bad happenings, including launching someone through an open window from the third story of a building. The town of Ebbing, Missouri appears to hide much more than meets the eye.
What truly makes Three Billboards rocket from a mere noir-thriller into a spectacular feat is the individual performances. Both Harrelson and Rockwell commit entirely to their characters and their flaws; not a hint of hesitation comes through in their dialogue. To have to portray such broken characters, each with their own level of corruption, and yet succeed in making moments of raw vulnerability feel so truthful is hard for even the most seasoned of actors.
As for McDormand, the ability to say so much in such little words has always been her forte, and even playing a character like foul-mouthed Mildred, this quality shines through. When it is just her and the billboards, just a look or a turn of the head says all it needs to about this grieving mother. She continues to be the glue that holds the film together, lacing her brilliantly sharp wit into almost every scene and tearing up Ebbing in her ‘Rosie The Riveter’-esque attire.
It would be wrong to say, however, that Three Billboards ticks all the boxes. Many have come forward to argue that its portrayal of both a brazenly callous mother and a shamelessly racist policeman creates a regressive narrative in an otherwise increasingly politically forward and accepting cinema culture. Perhaps a criticism like that is to misunderstand McDonagh’s niche modus operandi when it comes to storytelling. His other works, such as his 2003 play The Pillowman, tend not to shy away from but rather confront the darkest corners of humanity. Three Billboards does exactly this; it may be provocative, but McDonagh understands this, and even shapes it to his advantage to create a story that is both morally ambiguous and multi-dimensional.
Image: Twentieth Century Fox