Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is director Martin McDonagh’s first follow-up since his 2012 Seven Psychopaths. While all of McDonagh’s films have gleefully embraced the darkness of black comedies, none have felt as heartachingly poignant as Three Billboards.
The events of the film transpire due to three short phrases plastered on the titular billboards: “Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come, Chief Willoughby?” After the investigation into the rape and death of her daughter Angela hits a dead end, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides to take matters into her own hands. Using the money she earned by selling her abusive ex-husband’s tractor, she puts up these billboards in order to keep the case in the public eye, as well as light a fire under the ass of the Ebbing police force.
Both of these goals come to pass, but perhaps not in the way she hoped. While Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is sympathetic to her plight, he finds them to be a little unfair to him, noting that there was nothing else they can do. This is contrasted with Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an openly racist, hot-headed cop, who takes great personal offense to these billboards and conspires to take them down. Mildred is having none of it. She’s determined to keep them up, in hopes of shining a light on the incompetence of the police force, who, as Mildred puts it, “are too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crime.” What follows is a town and police force that erupts into chaos over three simple billboards.
This is McDonagh’s third feature-length film, and it may be his best yet. While all of his films have straddled the line between outright comedy and outright drama, none of balanced it so skillfully as Three Billboards. The concepts the film wrestles with are as heavy as they are topical. With the recent tidal wave of sexual assault allegations in Hollywood as well as the growing movement against police brutality, Three Billboards couldn’t have picked a more relevant time to get made.
There are multiple genuinely dark and heartbreaking moments in the film. One which literally made my jaw-drop, a seriously “holy shit” moment. The film is definitely not afraid to go all in on these moments, which makes the irreverence and wit of the rest of the film all the greater. Three Billboards is fucking hilarious. It’s one of the funniest films of the year. The buffoonery of Officer Dixon contrasted with the no-nonsense, get shit done demeanor of Mildred result in actual laugh out loud moments.
Frances McDormand is a tour de force here, delivering one of the best performances of her career. She’s absolutely incredible. Equal parts heartbroken and angry, she becomes an instrument of righteous vengeance. You can feel her anger bubbling beneath her her cool exterior in every scene, waiting to be unleashed once anyone crosses her. Chief Willoughby seems like it was written specifically for Harrelson’s particular brand of charm. He’s the one cop sympathetic to Mildred’s plight, even if the billboards are attacking him personally. He wishes he could catch Angela’s killer, but he knows it may be an impossibility. Willoughby is one of the more dynamic characters in the film, and Harrelson knocks it out of the park.
Notice I said “one” of the more dynamic characters, because he certainly isn’t the most. No, that honor belongs to Sam Rockwall’s Officer Dixon. Dixon could have been your typical racist, good ole’ southern boy cop, but the nuance that both McDonagh’s script and Rockwall’s performance give to the character is astounding. The arc that Dixon goes through is nothing short of amazing, starting as a low life, somehow becoming even lower, and then somehow attaining a weird sense of redemption is strangely compelling. It’s always fun to see Rockwall take on a more villainous role. He brings his A-game here.
This is one of the great things about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s so surprising. Just when you think you have figured out the general plot of the film, it throws a monkey wrench in to shake things up, recontextualizing everything else. Dixon’s unexpected redemption arc is one of these surprises, but that only comes to pass due to a number of other twists. The screenplay by McDonagh is so damn sharp. We’re approaching awards season, and methinks this thing is certainly going to sweep in the writing categories.
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is a triumph on all fronts. Everyone involved in the film are at their best. Frances McDormand is better than she ever has been, Sam Rockwall is as fantastic as always, and Woody Harrelson gives a characteristically goofy performance. That’s without even mentioning all of the other residents of Ebbing who all get brief moments in the limelight. One especially worth mentioning is Peter Dinklage as “the town midget” who garners some of the biggest laughs of the film. This is Martin McDonagh at his best. He’s crafted yet another hilarious and heartbreaking film, one that may be his most essential yet.