After seven months of no results from the police, Mildred Hayes posts three billboards outside the town of Ebbing, Missouri in an attempt to prod local law enforcement to do something/anything more.
Hayes (Frances McDormand) is, when we meet her, a seething, rage-filled mother who’s sense of loss following the rape and murder of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) – seen briefly in a telling flashback – is such that she barely registers the needs of her son, Robbie, Lucas Hedges).
The film opens with Hayes renting three billboards on a little used road leading into Ebbing. After going through what can’t be said on the billboards, she strikes a deal with Ebbing Advertising’s sole employee, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) and the soon to be infamous signs are posted – seemingly mocking the efforts of Ebbing’s police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
The signs become the subject of the TV news of a nearby city and create a division in town best illustrated by Willoughby when he tells Hayes that the town is behind her in wanting her daughter’s killer found, but its against her on the subject of the signs.
The film’s Hayes-Willoughby encounters show that the pair are actually friends and genuinely like each other – despite the situation they find themselves in. A key moment comes when Willoughby reveals that he’s dying – ‘the cancer’ – and she gently informs him that she knows… the whole town knows.
There’s plenty of reaction to the billboards on other fronts: Robbie comes home from school in a less than happy state; bigoted cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell) glowers at Hayes intimidatingly (she’s not impressed), and the dentist tries to work on her without anesthetic – but even after administering it, he moves in a threatening manner that Hayes turns against him in a very painful way.
When her car is egged by someone at Robbie’s school, she has a startlingly direct response, too. It seems that nothing can get past her rage to scare her…
For his third film, Martin McDonagh has assembled an amazing cast – beyond the leads, it includes the amazing Zeljko Ivanek who makes everything he’s in better, as the police department’s desk sergeant; Abbie Cornish is wonderful as Willoughby’s wife, Anne; Peter Dinklage adds warmth and humor as James, owner of the local tavern; John Hawkes is a bit scary but also tender as Charlie, Hayes’ ex, and Kerry Condon is a delight as Charlie’s not terribly bright new 19-year old girlfriend.
McDonagh’s plotting is intricate and diabolically clever – the arcs his characters take are more than a little bit different, and he has the cast to pull them off.
While we start the film completely on Hayes’ side, there are actions that make us waver; similarly, with Dixon, we start off not liking him at all (and with good reason) but he takes a turn (an impressive turn that I doubt many actors could handle) and Rockwell has us believing.
Though stuck between the two rage monsters of Hayes and Dixon, Willoughby is a cool pool of calm and reason – even when he begins to cough up blood (another instance when we see that Hayes really likes the chief). Harrelson’s quiet dignity anchors the entire film – though in a couple of very different ways.
Being a McDonagh film, Three billboards has its share of violence – brutal, shocking violence – though not nearly as much as either In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths. There are no weirdly eccentric characters, either (no Tom Waits and his bunny…), but the film’s intimacy requires none.
Three Billboards is a study of grief and pain and rage and bigotry – but also intelligence, wit and compassion. All of which play out more grandly when set in a small, southern town in America.
It’s hard to look at Three billboards and see ourselves in one or more of the characters. That’s the mark of a brilliant writer/director and some genius casting.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri earns its R-rating with language and violence, but it’s a film that, in the end, is more about compassion, redemption and good old-fashioned decency.
It is, without doubt, McDonagh’s best film.
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