Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (United Kingdom/United States, 2017)November 22, 2017
“Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
The text of those three billboards establishes a narrative but, although that’s the starting point for Martin McDonagh’s stellar Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it doesn’t hint at the film’s eventual trajectory, which takes the viewer on a dizzying ride through dark comedy, wrenching tragedy, shocking moments, karmic twists, and redemption. Thus far, 2017 hasn’t offered anything close to the experience provided by this movie which effectively traverses a high wire between comedy and tragedy and does so without a safety net. Outside the Coen Brothers, it’s hard to find a filmmaker with that skill and with this production, McDonagh has placed himself in august company.
In Bruges put McDonagh on the map. Seven Psychopaths, although uneven, was not to be dismissed lightly. Three Billboards, however, has exceeded all expectations. McDonagh hasn’t just gotten better, he has rocketed into the stratosphere. Having won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto and been nominated for 11 British Independent Film Awards, it’s hard not to believe that Three Billboards isn’t on a fast track to some kind of Oscar recognition.
The movie is about the evolution of characters – three in particular – and to describe where they end up would spoil the process of discovering how they change and the elements that contribute to who they are. All is not as it seems when the unsmiling, no-nonsense Mildred (Frances McDormand) pays a local advertising man, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), a tidy sum of $5000 to rent the billboards and put up her message. The recent rape and murder of her teenage daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), weighs heavily on her and the police’s inability to find a credible suspect curdles her view of them as lazy and racist. Those charges perhaps apply to one officer, the inept but morally twisted Dixon (Sam Rockwell), but not to the Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) named in Mildred’s third billboard. Willoughby is a loving family man who, despite a penchant for profanity and a bleak sense of humor, seems to be as morally upright as they come. Mildred’s erection of the billboards spurs a forceful backlash. As a priest explains, while the community is “100% behind her” in her quest to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, they resent her latest action because it besmirches a good man’s name.
Acting is without question one of Three Billboard’s many strengths. It wouldn’t be shocking to see three nominations come out of this film. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it might be shocking to not see those three. It’s hard to single out who leaves the strongest impression: the always amazing Frances McDormand as a woman fighting her personal demons while struggling to keep it together for the sake of her son (Lucas Hedges) and the memory of her daughter; the underrated Sam Rockwell, who has never given a bad performance and excels with the range demanded by Dixon, who functions at various times as clown, coward, and criminal; or Woody Harrelson, who uses his natural charm and likability to make Chief Willoughby seem like a pillar of decency. Gray areas abound in all of the characters and the actors traverse them without losing focus or intensity. There are some strong, effective supporting portrayals as well: Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife, Anne; Peter Dinklage as the “local dwarf” (who has one short-but-powerful monologue); Caleb Landry Jones as the representative of the ad agency that owns the billboards; and John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband.
Tone isn’t merely important to Three Billboards, it’s critical. Stripped of sentiment, the movie uses a hard-hitting dramatic style to advance the story. There are gut-punches aplenty and more than a few of the plot points aren’t expected. This isn’t a mystery, a whodunnit?, or a procedural. It’s a character-based piece that looks deep into the human soul and finds shadow and light. It makes an argument for redemption that some might reject but does so in a compelling manner. And, despite all the misery, it uses dark comedy to keep the proceedings from becoming too morose. Roger Ebert once stated that any subject matter can be used to comedic effect if the practitioner is skilled enough. McDonagh is skilled enough.
One of the salient differences between a great movie and one that is “merely” very good is how deeply the movie implants itself in the memory. Are you thinking about it an hour after it finishes? A day? A week? First impressions are often good indicators of a film’s power but it sometimes takes thoughts a time to marinate. Three Billboards lingers, not only because of the richness and complexity of the characters but because of the choices McDonagh makes in bringing this story to the screen. His approach is specific and uncompromising. It’s not safe. Approached with lesser actors or a wavering confidence, the result could have been deemed an “interesting failure.” But there’s not a whiff of failure about this movie. The best of the year? Could be. If not, it will certainly be in the conversation.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (United Kingdom/United States, 2017)
Cast: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage
Screenplay: Martin McDonagh
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight