I had the opportunity to see this film at an early stage; it had been screened only at the film festivals in Venice and Toronto. I enjoyed it very much, but felt a little conflicted afterwards, something that stayed with me over the night and was reflected in a too-hasty original review for this site. Then I read Brian Tallerico’s excellent review at RogerEbert.com and realized that the way he captured the essence of the movie was superior to my doubts.
So I knew what I had to do – get back to work. I wouldn’t dream of copying Tallerico, but as a critic one must be able to test one’s conclusions, see if they hold water – and change if they come up short.
We’re in a small, fictitious town called Ebbing, Missouri. A few months ago, Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) teenage daughter was found raped and murdered, an unusually cruel case. So far, no culprit has been found. One evening, Mildred passes three billboards outside the town. They’re empty, haven’t been used for decades, and she comes up with an outrageous idea. After finding out who’s responsible for them, she pays for one month of advertising and intends to keep the message up after that for as long as she can afford. The billboards read ”Raped while dying”, ”Still no arrests” and ”How come, Chief Willoughby?”. Mildred’s campaign comes as a shock to the Ebbing police department and Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
Living up to the promise of the premise
I saw director Martin McDonagh’s film In Bruges (2008) years ago and liked it a lot – a quirky, odd gangster movie with killers who seemed like real people, not movie villains. When I sat down to see his new movie, I recognized the tone; this one also asks of you to buy into these people and their behavior, even if they strike you as a little too deliberately quaint. The main thing you have to ask yourself is: does the writing live up to the promise of its premise? Does the movie offer compelling substance beyond quirky characters?
I struggled with all of that; at times, it seemed like every character belonged in this movie, for sure, but perhaps not in the real world… and Three Billboards asks of us to invest emotionally in the story to an even greater degree than In Bruges did. After all, Mildred is a grieving mother whose child was killed in the most inhumane way possible, and we learn a few things about the other characters that are also heartbreaking. But in spite of the crazy events that unfold in this movie, and they are thoroughly unpredictable, we understand and even sympathize with these people. It’s not always easy, considering how stubbornly unlikable Mildred turns out to be sometimes, and how Willoughby’s deputy, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), uses the power of his office to be a violent bully.
But in his review, Brian Tallerico elegantly points out how anger is a driving motivation for these two characters in particular. I became convinced that the theme of anger and its devastating effect so dominates the film that its unreasonable nature explains some of the overblown moments. McDonagh walks a delicate balance between crazy and emotionally resonant.
McDormand usually gets all the attention from critics, and she’s terrific here. But we’ve seen her do similarly headstrong characters before, so the real eye-opener for me is Rockwell who’s off-putting, hilarious and very engaging all at once as the deputy who’s turned making ill-judged decisions into an art form. Harrelson is also a treat, even touching, as the sheriff who’s dealing with his own share of injustice, much like Mildred.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri 2017-U.S.-Britain. 115 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Cinematography: Ben Davis. Music: Carter Burwell. Cast: Frances McDormand (Mildred Hayes), Woody Harrelson (Bill Willoughby), Sam Rockwell (Jason Dixon), John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish… Zeljko Ivanek.
Oscars: Best Actress (McDormand), Supporting Actor (Rockwell). Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Actress (McDormand), Supporting Actor (Rockwell), Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Film, British Film, Actress (McDormand), Supporting Actor (Rockwell), Original Screenplay. Venice: Best Screenplay.
Last word: “Martin and I, again, had some of the same conversations about vulnerability. I believed there were places where Mildred simply can’t access her emotions. So why be afraid of that? Everybody is f—ing crying in movies all the time, even the men! For me, that’s not Greek tragedy, it’s a therapy session. It’s about neuroses and not pain and rage. There’s something healing about tears. If Mildred’s emotions are so accessible, if she can so easily go to tears, then why is she so filled with rage? Because if you can cry out the pain, you don’t need to burn down the police station. So I was interested in her being locked out of her own humanity.” (McDormand, Entertainment Weekly)