I don’t think I’m getting too political or controversial in saying this is a difficult time in history. The world is filled with violence, hatred, disagreements, racism, sexism, and more. It really knows no boundaries, as we’ve seen in events ranging from Charlottesville to the Weinstein scandal. In times such as these, we look to answers inside art, using classical stories to mine for meaning in an often-unjust universe. It would make sense that a playwright would provide us with such a story, blending together all these ideas to explore biblical themes, morals and ideas in a truly human way, and that’s exactly what Martin McDonagh does with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. By departing from his usual filmic style, he has made an honest, searing film that drives to the heart of what it means to be American, and what it means to be human.
It’s been almost a year since Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) daughter Angela was found raped, murdered, and set on fire on the outskirts of the small Missouri town of Ebbing. Embittered by the crime and already suffering as a single mother after being abandoned by her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), Mildred spends her days trying to get answers from the local police station, who have failed to find a suspect in seven months. Set on the warpath, Mildred puts up a series of billboards, accusing the town’s police force of negligence of duty, with particular focus put upon beloved town police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). When Willoughby’s loyal-but-dopey/bigoted deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) starts to fight back against Mildred, the town is dragged from a metaphorical war into a literal one.
I like to consider writer/director Martin McDonagh to be the Catholic Tarantino. McDonagh came of age in the major Irish city of Galway. Living in Ireland, he was steeped in the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, but like many of his generation, he became disillusioned with the actual institution after the scandals in his hometown began to break. Nevertheless, the major themes of Catholicism (guilt, sin, choosing love over hate, and martyrdom for your neighbors/enemies) are still held dear, and he, along with his equally talented brother John Michael, incorporates them into each and every piece he writes (his work also deals with a character’s battle against institutions, also stemming from that childhood). These themes are much more prevalent in his plays than in his more pulpishly comedic works like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, but they are incredibly clear here, making up the bulk of the film. The film may have presented itself as a dark comedy, thanks to McDormand’s indelible delivery of lines and Rockwell’s ability to play bumbling, but make no mistake: this is a nasty film. Things aren’t presented as simple, or with easy answers, but one thing is for certain, and it’s the key to the teachings of the Catholic faith: Hate begets Hate. This is clear in the case of Mildred, who is channeling the hate she has been dealt in life and dealing it out on the world around her through kicks, drill, and fire, just as much as it’s clear in the case of Dixon, who wants to be a good man, but has been only taught hatred by his bigoted mother (when Dixon comments to her that times are changing in the South, she angrily spits out “Well they shouldn’t!”) and can only project what he’s seen onto the world around him. And in the ultimate sense of bitter karma, these two begin reflecting their hatred onto each other, creating a vicious cycle that can only be broken through three things: love, forgiveness, and acceptance. The film follows these themes with a bleak, honest, and even funny eye – one key moment late in the film involves a character’s desperate plea for love played over a horrifying sequence of violence. It’s dark, tragic, infuriating…and kind of funny, all at the same time. And like any film written by a playwright that so desperately belongs on the stage, the film feels like it can be slow at times, and it seems like there’s a lot more thematically that McDonagh just couldn’t bring together. However, when something’s got its heart in the right place, and the journey to get there is so powerful, you’re usually capable of overlooking these kinds of issues.
While the themes in the film definitely stem from McDonagh’s Irish Catholic background, let’s not beat around the bush here: this is an American story, through and through, and the perfect story for America in 2017, for better or worse. Let’s start on the micro scale. I’ve only been to Missouri for half a day, and it was in the very deep South. I can’t tell you if the towns there are anything like Ebbing. However, I did grow up in a small town in the Midwest, and I can tell you this much: in a lot of ways, McDonagh nails it. This is a community where people generally get along, and everyone knows each other, but they’re also willing to look the other way when someone’s in trouble, or going down a rotten path. They have a collective sense of “right,” and if someone messes with the flow of it, even if it’s for a more moral reason, then it just doesn’t sit right with them, and they fight back. They aren’t perfect, but they aren’t bad people either; the perfect analogy for America. However, I’m really fascinated by the macro level that this film works on, especially because being written in 2012 makes this film entirely prescient. This is a film that centers around the general conceit that the only way to truly get justice is to keep the case in the public eye, and all of the implications, both good and bad, that go along with it. In the era where people are using Twitter and the media to finally get justice years after their abuse, be the perpetrator a Hollywood mogul or a man running for public office, cases such as these have really moved into the Court of Public Opinion. There are several pros and cons to this line of thinking, and what this film fascinatingly does is study these ideas through the use of something as old-fashioned and as ridiculous as a billboard. We also see the film dealing with the idea of racism inside the police force, although not in the way you’d think. You see, current media portrayals would like to paint things as “authority is always in the right” or “all police are racist.” However, things aren’t quite that simple, and they never have been. Three Billboards tackles this issue head-on, ironically in the state where things really intensified these last few years, to explore what makes people like this tick. It understands that not all policemen have racist tendencies, and that those that do are not beyond rehabilitation, but it requires acknowledgement and effort to change to do so. It’s such a refreshing take after so many “100% one way or the other” accounts, it feels like something extraordinary. As cliché as it sounds to say that Ebbing, Missouri is America, that’s exactly what McDonagh so successfully accomplishes: he’s used the small town to explore the issues plaguing the United States and trying to figure out how to fix them.
Of course, what’s really fascinating about the film is how McDonagh has crafted these characters. You rarely see people who are all good and all bad in the real world, and therefore no one like that exists in McDonagh’s. This ends up taking already-fascinating characters and making them even deeper in nature. For example, it would have been simple to make Chief Willoughby a truly bad guy who wasn’t doing his job. As it turns out, that couldn’t be farther from the truth: Willoughby is actually pretty good at his job. He’s a great sheriff, a good father, and a loving husband. He’s not racist, he cares about his community – hell, even Mildred has some level of acquaintance with him, and under different circumstances, they could probably be friends. He’s not perfect, and he could definitely do more, but he’s not a bad man; he’s just a victim of Mildred’s wrath. Speaking of Mildred, what a force of nature. Mildred may be the greatest test of empathy to an audience the screen has ever seen. She rewrites the idiom “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” as “Hell hath no fury like a woman wronged.” Fed up with being the victim, and having lost someone near and dear to her, Mildred has gone off the deep end, releasing upon the world a righteous fury. And at first, we want to be with her – while we know that her desire to just “round up all the men at birth, draw blood for a national database, and if they test positive to DNA at a rape scene, kill ‘em” is illogical and impractical, we understand the reason that she gets there. However, as she’s pushed further and further to the brink, we find it harder and harder to relate to her. She uses every slur under the sun. She violently assaults everyone who crosses her path (which eventually brings her back to redemption). And most egregious of all, she does this all out of her own selfish grief, ignoring the feelings of the son who still survives and just needs to grieve without being made a spectacle of while she tries to assuage her own conscience of mistakes past. She’s not a bad person, but she’s not a great person either. Meanwhile, Dixon is the reverse side of the coin. He’s a very nasty individual, prone to flying off the handle at a moment’s notice. However, we come to understand that his flaws and crimes come from years of brainwashing by a racist mother (whom, while nasty, is not entirely terrible herself). With that upbringing, and unresolved emotions over his father’s death, Dixon struggles with his actions towards his fellow man, but the key is he wants to be a good man. He became a police officer to help people, and got lost along the way. While the closest thing to the film’s “villain,” he is not without salvation. And that’s the world that McDonagh is trying to design: one where the heroes are flawed, the villains are savable, and humanity is all struggling to get by.
On a performance level, this is one of the greatest casts I’ve seen in years. Everyone is at the top of their game, whether they’re a huge star or a bit player. Frances McDormand is really one of the greatest actresses around. She doesn’t just perfectly snarl every wonderfully nasty line she’s given, she relishes in them. She’s a firecracker basking in playing the opposite of every goodhearted woman she’s played before, especially Marge Gunderson. However, McDormand never loses heart throughout, and a particular scene involving a deer is one of the most touching of the year, and the kind of thing that appears in Career Achievement highlight reels. Meanwhile, Sam Rockwell continues to prove that he’s one of the most talented actors around. He portrays Jason Dixon as if he’s a bigoted Barney Fife, a good man with an obsession with the law and his sheriff and a bumbling nature that keeps him from achieving greatness. He plays nasty pretty damn well, but he makes Dixon redeemable not only through his actions and his performance, but the fact that Rockwell is, by nature, just too damn likable. And Woody Harrelson rests over the whole film as a sort of flawed voice of reason, delivering intentionally terrible pieces of advice alongside his great ones, and clearly unhappy with his inability to solve the case. Harrelson may be the film’s secret weapon, and he particularly shines in an interrogation scene with McDormand, as well as a series of monologues he delivers throughout the film. Only Harrelson could win over a crowd using only his voice. Meanwhile, outside this core group of three, everyone’s working at the top of their game. John Hawkes portrays the right balance of sleazy and remorseful, Abbie Cornish has a few great key scenes as Harrelson’s younger wife, and Peter Dinklage shows up to deliver some of the best lines in the movie. Meanwhile, Caleb Landry Jones is really making himself over as a younger version of Willem Dafoe (whose son he played in The Florida Project), looking sleazy and good-hearted at the same time, and sharing a wonderful scene with Rockwell late in the film. Lucas Hedges has a small role as McDormand’s son, and he absolutely nails it; so too is Sandy Martin excellent as Dixon’s mother, a bitter, sarcastic woman with bigoted views but deep love for her child (even if the role is in a similar vein to her role on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). However, I want to give credit to two performances that won’t get much love outside this review, and those are the performances of Samara Weaving and Darrell Britt-Gibson. Weaving plays the younger girlfriend of Hawkes’ character, and she mainly shows up to be the comedic foil to McDormand. However, there’s something about the way she delivered her lines and looked truly eager to be a good person in a world of flawed humans that made her so damned enjoyable. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best performances in the film, and maybe of the year. Meanwhile, Britt-Gibson has been stealing hearts for years as Sh*tshow on You’re the Worst. Here, he gets to actually have a role, instead of being the comedic foil. His performance as Jerome is fraught with subtext and human emotion, creating a three-dimensional character out of a background player. I’m hoping this film serves as a stepping-stone for him, because he could potentially be the next breakout star.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a compelling morality play. It’s smartly directed and expertly put together, from the cinematography to the haunting score. It takes a look at the world around us, pointing out our flaws and highlighting our strengths. It paints the world that is, and demonstrates the world it can be. There’s bound to be some speculation about the ending of the film and what it means for our characters, be it a step back, a step forward, or remaining in neutral. I personally view it as a step forward, demonstrating that the characters can come together to grieve and forgive and move forward as one, regardless of what they’ve done in the past. That’s the world I’d rather live in, and that’s the world I think this film would want us to make. Like its characters, the film isn’t quite perfect; however, also like its characters, it tries, and strives, and fights its way to the most heroic version possible. And for that reason, it stands out as one of the best films of the year.