THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: Brutal, Hilarious & Morally Complex
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a funny yet brutal film, presenting complex quandaries of grief, violence, and rage.
Rarely do I feel so many conflicting emotions during a film than I did during Martin McDonagh‘s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Far from just the quirky premise that its synopsis seems to imply, it’s a film that asks much of you, forcing you to witness acts of pure brutality, to feel empathy for flawed, even deplorable characters, and to somehow question the purpose of it all, and whether it’s possible to truly escape from seemingly endless cycles of violence and rage. It’s a film with no easy answers. But what it does provide is an undeniably entertaining catharsis all the same.
The Three Billboards
Three Billboards is about Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a woman who has, within the past year, lost her daughter to a still unknown assailant. With little headway by the police force to solve the case, she decides to take action, which consists of erecting accusatory messages on three unused billboards just outside the city’s limits, begging the question of why her daughter’s killer still walks free.
Such a defiant act provokes a reaction in their tiny community, not the least of which was calling out the detective on her daughter’s case by name, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man widely respected by the town and also dealing with his own personal struggles. It also especially angers Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a man who feels indebted to Willoughby and therefore vengeful against Mildred’s shaming of his name. What follows is an increasingly violent series of exchanges, ranging from comically unexpected to almost unforgivably evil.
Wit and Humor
McDonagh, who in the past helmed the films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, is no stranger to uniquely told, complex stories. In Bruges, for example, is a film about two assassins seeking refuge in Bruges, Belgium after an attempted assassination of a priest ended in the death of an altar boy. Yet even with such a dark premise, the film flits between a somber and humorous tone, ending up landing somewhere in the middle but never too heavy to sit through.
Three Billboards had even more potential to be a dismal affair, dealing with the subject of a mother losing her daughter, and showing the levels of grief and rage that result from this. Yet, much like In Bruges, the film is often a riot, with laser-quick dialogue and more profanity than you can shake a stick at. The score by Carter Burwell and the film’s soundtrack are further representative of this, a range of quiet southern-influenced guitar to more thematically exuberant pieces, such as Four Tops’ “Walk Away Renee.”
The town of Ebbing, Missouri is also laden with colorful characters, from Caleb Landry Jones‘ amicable Red, the owner of the advertising agency that dealt with Mildred’s three controversial billboards, to Peter Dinklage‘s James, who is smitten with Mildred despite her outward aggressiveness towards him (and everyone, for that matter). Some characters, such as John Hawkes’ Charlie, the abusive ex-husband of Mildred, are underdeveloped in comparison, but the overall impression is of a town so tight-knit that the shaming of one person is reflective on everyone.
The film is, of course, helped immensely by the powerhouse performance of Frances McDormand. Perhaps best known for her Oscar-winning role in Fargo, here McDormand is about as separated from the calm and collected Marge Gunderson as could be possible. Mildred may seem reserved at first glance, but she is actually a viper ready to strike, either through her biting wit (her initial verbal takedown of a priest is especially funny), or through her increasingly out-of-hand acts of violence. Yet, through it all, McDormand‘s Mildred remains sympathetic as a whole, with her rage not only being a result of years of oppression while married to John Hawkes’ Charlie, but also as a way to deal with the loss of her teenaged daughter.
Standing head to head with McDormand is Sam Rockwell as racist manchild Officer Dixon. Rockwell, known mostly as a character actor, initially seems to just be the film’s villain, but is actually given much more to work with. Dixon is, at first at least, a timely character given the recent sexual assault allegations across Hollywood, and is representative of toxic masculinity as a whole, dealing with his own inferiority complex partly as a result of being a momma’s boy, and an emasculated rage as a result. But where he develops beyond this is what truly allows Rockwell to show his acting range (but more on that in a bit).
Curiously, though initially seeming to be the film’s additional protagonist, Woody Harrelson does not have as large a role as either McDormand or Rockwell. Harrelson does get a chance to play a more levelheaded character as opposed to the villainous personas he is known for, but he is underused when compared to the rest of the cast. It’s yet another interesting choice by McDonagh, whose bait-and-switch technique does make way for the film’s central conflict.
It’s this back-and-forth exchange between Mildred and Officer Dixon that makes Three Billboards a somewhat uncomfortable watch. The film is soon more than just the story of a mother grieving for her lost daughter, delving even deeper into the cycles of violence that can occur when unhinged rage takes control. One cannot entirely blame Mildred for what happens, but her billboards are the spark that ignite a raging fire through her quaint community.
But McDonagh, known for his unflinchingly brutal depictions of violence, is not one to hold back here either. When violence occurs, we see and hear it all, from the up-close anger of the person committing the act to the shattering screams of the helpless victims. It’s a film that might have your jaw hanging in dismay due to its unexpected turn of events, questioning just why anyone could claim to enjoy a film that contains such barbaric acts.
Yet, it’s a testament to McDonagh‘s talent as a writer that he can somehow redeem his characters after what occurs in the film. Mildred and especially Officer Dixon are two people dealing with their own insecurities, and lash out at one another as a result of this unrequited resentment. McDonagh pulls them along on their respective journeys, bringing them through some dark places, but still allowing them to see the light by the end, at least somewhat. Not everything is quite as tidied up as you might like by the time the credits roll, but there’s at least a glimmer of hope. As I mentioned, very rarely does a film take you on such an emotional rollercoaster as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Verdict: Three Billboards
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not an easy film. Its raw depictions of violence and morally reprehensible characters might be off-putting for some, and its eventual semi-reconciliation might seem unfounded to those that were turned off by the film’s brutal events even more than I was.
Yet, for a film that could have been wrapped up in a neat little package by the end, showing you on which side it truly stands, instead it leaves you out in the open, forcing you to think and examine its events for yourself. Only writer/director Martin McDonagh could have done this remarkable feat, and Three Billboards is yet another shining example of his distinguished talent as a filmmaker.
What are your thoughts on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? Are you a fan of Martin McDonagh’s work?
Three Billboards is currently playing in limited release in the US; it will be released in the UK on January 12, 2018. For more release dates, click here.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.