Mixing pitch-black comedy with a handful of dynamite performances, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a daring plunge into the soul of a small Midwestern town ripe for being shaken out of its monotony. Is it a movie about the endless cycle of violence? A comedy about a scorned woman raging against a cruel universe? A think-piece about the psychological turmoil we bury just to get on with life? Just like in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s gem In Bruges, it mostly depends on the scene. Nearly impossible to anticipate and always pressing uncomfortable topics, Three Billboards overcomes a couple of gags that miss the mark with a knockout performance from Frances McDormand and hilariously quirky dialog that proves (again) that McDonagh has a gift for comedic anarchy.
In the opening moments of the film, the eponymous billboards are just sitting there at the side of a seldom used road, a ghostly reminder of a forgotten era complete with remnants of idealistic 1950s ads. But that was before the highway fundamentally changed the town, leaving the billboards to rot well away from any eyes that might pass through Ebbing. Without a new posting in decades, it appears that nobody actually has anything to say, or perhaps simply nobody to say it to. Except for Mildred Hayes, played with a savage wit by Frances McDormand.
When ole Mildred gives them a second look and sees three enormous blank slates sitting at the side of the road, she imagines the perfect opportunity to let the rest of Ebbing feel her simmering rage, which she still carries nearly a year after her daughter was brutally raped and murdered. Given a new path forward, Mildred decides that being the strong, silent type simply isn’t for her and instead wages war on the entire local police department for not finding the killer, starting with Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
By plot alone, you might think that Three Billboards is a whodunit about a grieving mother who teams up with an altruistic sheriff to catch the bad guy. But what progresses is anything but your straight-forward murder-mystery, as McDonagh once again takes a familiar story and turns it completely on its head. In McDonagh’s world, the plot is just an avenue to a screwball comedy that sprinkles in surprising moments of empathy with his usual cockeyed brilliance and acid-tongued main characters. Mildred may be ostensibly hunting for the murderer, but she’s also there to throw firebombs at the entire establishment that has already given up the search.
Just like with the best films from the Coen Brothers, Three Billboards is brutally forthright with depicting violence but can’t hold back the inherent humor – especially when convention says it’s the wrong time for a joke. Mildred’s mission kick-starts a string of violent encounters that cut deep into the normally sleepy small town, publicly lancing a boil that has been allowed to fester simply by complacency. Is everyone OK with the murder going unsolved? How about the openly racist cop (Sam Rockwell) who plagues the town with personal vendettas? Although there is a plot that’s easy to follow, the movie is much more about digging into the difficult topics that always have more complicated answers than we want to admit.
McDonagh also is able to hold together a wacky chain of events with pinpoint performances from a deep cast of great character actors. McDormand is consistently funny as she verbally eviscerates anyone who stands in her path, but she’s not the only one showing off here. Rockwell takes a dimwitted, small town racist cop and avoids feeling like a cliché, even managing to drum up some sympathy despite his obvious character flaws. You also have the seamless chameleon John Hawes, who is so good as Mildred’s firecracker of an ex-husband that he probably deserved another scene or two (as always). Even Woody Harrelson, playing a familiar Woody Harrelson role as the police chief, effortlessly evokes the conscience of Ebbing with a warm and subtle performance that balances the explosive elements of the film. Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son, Robbie, also hits a variety of notes in limited screen time, showcasing the talent that landed him important roles in recently acclaimed films like Manchester By the Sea and Lady Bird.
It all works together into an entirely original comedy-drama that has plenty to say about small town Midwestern life in the year 2017. Do all of the jokes hit the mark? Not exactly, but the ones that do are so well-done, so viciously realized, that it’s easy to forgive McDonagh for taking risks and pushing the film into excitingly unique territory. Although McDonagh’s previous film, Seven Psychopaths, struggled to reach its potential, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri reestablishes the writer/director as one of the most interesting and unique voices making films today.