In a digital world polluted by snarky hashtags and viral videos, it’s nice to know that the written word can still pack a wallop.
Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s latest offering, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is driven by the transformative power of words. It’s a mistake, however, to assume this power is always skewed toward the positive. McDonagh understands that words can become a prison; a conduit for injured souls to spew their venom on enemies both real and imagined. If McDonagh’s dark comedy-drama doesn’t quite out-Fargo Fargo, it brilliantly illustrates the chaos a few choice words can cause in the hands of a talented filmmaker.
Ebbing, Missouri isn’t much of a going concern. People are born, they earn a modest living, and then they die. It’s the kind of town where shop owners sit around reading Flannery O’Connor (a most worthwhile pastime, indeed) and gossiping about who is sleeping with whom. There are a total of three billboards in town; each more dilapidated than the next. Imagine the turmoil, then, when these billboards are suddenly plastered with a provocative challenge aimed at the local police chief to solve a heinous crime.
The threat comes from Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose teenage daughter Angela was brutally raped, burned, and murdered. To call Mildred formidable would be an insult to formidability; she’s a runaway locomotive of destruction. She hasn’t heard anything about the case from Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in seven months, which is about six months longer than she finds acceptable.
McDormand’s performance is so tightly coiled that you can almost hear the strings groaning under the strain. Mildred’s only purpose in life, it would seem, is to find justice for her daughter. Upon closer inspection, however, McDonagh’s delightfully nuanced script reveals the true depth of Mildred’s pain. Her strained relationship with Angela, including a calamitous final argument on the night of Angela’s death, has metastasized into something unconscionably foul. Your heart aches for Mildred, but there’s no defending her increasingly erratic behavior. She has become a volatile cocktail of desperation and self-hatred that threatens to polarize the entire community.
Thankfully, the trademark dark humor of McDonagh, so evident in 2012’s Seven Psychopaths and his masterful directorial debut, In Bruges (2008), is still present, though it feels more organic this time around. There’s not much zaniness to be found in a plot involving rape, torture, and deep spiritual pain. Instead, McDonagh finds humor in each character’s foibles and insecurities, drawing them to the surface where he can poke at them again and again.
This insistence upon character depth allows Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to subvert expectation, even when you feel confident about the story’s direction. Take Chief Willoughby, for example. You’ve seen dozens of bumpkin sheriffs in the movies, but few have the richness of Willoughby; a man who sympathizes with Mildred, but must remain loyal to his incompetent officers. Ironically, it’s Willoughby, not Mildred, who represents the possibility for positive change, using his words to temper the anger of his hot-headed crew and project a genuine, if flawed humanity.
The lack of humanity in Mildred, however, results in the film’s one glaring flaw. Her three billboards set in motion a string of fateful events that lack any moral resonance for her. She’s tough as nails, to be sure, but did she actually learn anything? As the film progresses, Mildred becomes an obstructive force of vengeance; her only hope springing from fantasies of coldblooded murder. A good argument could be made that Mildred isn’t the hero of the piece, but the antagonist.
Perhaps that’s precisely McDonagh’s artistic objective. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri he has created the perfect metaphor for emotional stagnation. Those who become thoroughly consumed by grief and self-loathing are doomed to deepen that cycle with their single-minded pursuit of some non-existent cosmic justice. When faced with such indiscriminate tragedy, our only salvation seems to be temperance.
What ensures McDonagh’s film still works on a thematic level is Willoughby’s erratic sidekick, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell in an Oscar worthy turn). Here is a truly reprehensible man; a policeman who thinks nothing of beating African American inmates and throwing suspects out of second story windows. If he isn’t getting drunk in his down time, he’s being belittled by his loathsome mother (Sandy Martin as easily the scariest character in the entire film).
And yet, there’s a glimmer of humanity that burns deep within his twisted mind. That McDonagh doesn’t relegate Dixon to the stockpile of one-dimensional racist policemen enriches his story tremendously. Rockwell becomes not only the film’s best source for comedy and true menace but its most tantalizing candidate for redemption. There’s simply no way to predict what Officer Dixon will do next, which makes him a singularly fascinating character.
McDonagh has crafted an undeniably strong film that’s certain to linger with audiences. While it may lack the thematic clarity it needs to become a classic, there are more than enough moments of cruelty, kindness, and humor to land Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri on everyone’s Best of 2017 list. And that’s exactly where it belongs.