How much trouble can three random billboards on a lonely road make? Apparently a lot. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri follows a single mother (Frances McDormand) several months after the rape and murder of her daughter with no leads or arrests in the small town. The mother, Mildred, decides to bring the case back into the spotlight by renting three billboards calling out the police department’s lack of success. Mildred thinks this will keep the investigation going but instead causes a massive uproar in the town.
Three Billboards isn’t so much about finding the killer of Mildred’s daughter but is about the chaos and mayhem these billboards cause in the small town Midwest society. What follows is a darkly funny, emotional, and features the most memorable and wickedly clever dialogue this side of Quinton Tarantino. Director Martin McDonagh (of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths fame) crafts a film about morally compromised people that are capable of doing both good and bad things. McDonagh though never makes a moral judgment on his characters which keeps the audience fully invested in their story even when their actions are detestable.
There are many stars of this film but the first star is director Martin McDonagh. McDonagh brings his skill at vulgar dialogue and violent subject matter in a very accessible package with Three Billboards; this never feels too vulgar and never too violent. The comedic elements and larger than life characters keep the movie always enjoyable to watch.
At the center of these characters is Mildred played Frances McDormand in arguably her best performance since Fargo. Mildred is tough on the exterior but harbors an emotionally rocked core. She is righteous and sticks to her beliefs; willing to do and say things that others aren’t. Mildred may be the protagonist of the story but she isn’t a hero and isn’t always right in her actions. Her cause is noble but Mildred is never lionized. In some ways, she is larger than life but McDormand manages to ground her in a down to earth manner.
Many have stated that this film has a Coen Brothers feel to it. While there are elements of a Coen Brothers movie (with the larger than life colorful characters) I think a lot of the comparison comes from the virtue of McDormand’s casting. McDonagh’s films have always had a similar approach to this film, dark comedy mixed with drama. Three Billboards is one of the funniest movies made about a tragedy (Manchester By the Sea had that honor last year).
Despite having large amounts of comedy, Billboards still manages to find ways to hit all the dramatic elements without feeling tonally inconsistent. This is one of the most difficult types of stories to write. McDonagh able to jump from different characters’ points of view and tone with ease and grace. For each one, these billboards affect them differently.
Filling out the rest of characters is an all-star cast and not a single one of them misses a beat here. When Mildred puts up the billboards she calls out Chief Willoughby played by Woody Harrelson. Harrelson brings forth a typical Harrelson performance but larges amounts of heart. Frances McDormand is going to get the majority of the praise (and most likely a best actress nomination) but not to be overlooked is Sam Rockwell as the racist cop Dixon. Rockwell is not only funny but his character becomes well rounded and increasingly more interesting as the runtime continues. His journey is one of the highlights of the film. Dixon really plays into the movie’s theme of morally compromised people being able to do both good and bad things (in ways you won’t see coming).
Awards season is upon us. Last week Lady Bird instantly became one of my favorite films of the year and now this week, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri joins that list. Not only is it one of my favorites of the year but Three Billboards might become Martin McDonagh’s new benchmark for which all films he makes after is compared too (if you’ve seen In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths you know that says a lot). This is a stylistically heavy exaggerated version of our own world. In some ways, this is a timely film; it is morally challenging and damn funny, Three Billboards is a remarkable achievement.