'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri' is humorous and heartbreaking
Martin McDonagh’s (“Seven Psychopaths”) dark comedy “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” captures anger with a simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking touch. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, “Hail, Caesar!”) puts up three billboards denouncing the local police’s incompetence after her daughter’s rape and murder goes unsolved. This bold move turns the town, the police and Mildred’s family against her. Her grieving son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”) and abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”) both implore her to drop the cause, but Mildred presses on fueled by her unabiding anger.
McDonagh’s brilliant script balances multiple storylines to build a complete universe within the film. Not only is Mildred’s perspective explored, but also those of Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, “Now You See Me”) and Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, “The Way, Way Back”). Willoughby is the target of Mildred’s billboards. However, he is sympathetic to her mission and, ultimately, distracted by his terminal cancer diagnosis. Due to Willoughby’s unfortunate situation and the respect he garners in Ebbing, Mildred’s insistence despite his illness only escalates the town’s anger at her.
Officer Jason Dixon begins as an unprofessional bigot who abuses his role as law enforcement. His history of profiling black citizens and violent outbursts makes him an unlikely anti-hero. Yet McDonagh weaves the transformation of Dixon into the story so smoothly his transition from villain to sidekick feels seamless. Much of this seamlessness is owed to Rockwell who has previously collaborated with McDonagh and Harrelson in “Seven Psychopaths.” In “Seven Psychopaths,” Rockwell plays a similarly neurotic and violent character. However, in “Three Billboards” he adds another dimension that catapults the role of Officer Dixon to his best so far.
While Rockwell’s performance deserves applause, McDormand’s no-nonsense attitude and biting sarcasm carries the film from beginning to end. Although Mildred engages in questionable methods, the determination and grit McDormand so clearly projects makes her character the one to root for. McDormand also switches impressively from humor to drama in the blink of an eye. One moment she delivers a stinging jab at Officer Dixon and the next she sobs beneath her precious billboards. McDormand expresses Mildred’s anger in many forms from impeccable monologues to physical humor.
The talented cast and well-written script make “Three Billboards” one of the best films of the year. Not enough praise can be given to the actors. However, the billboards themselves should not be overlooked. These three signs serve as a character themselves: always present and motivating conflict. The directness of these billboards in detailing the frustration of a mother seeking answers to her daughter’s tragic death echo the breakneck speed of the plot. “Three Billboards” never slows down, never lets go of its angry engine and never breaks its hold on the audience’s attention, even after the credits roll.