Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual references
1 hr. 55 min.
Remember Frances McDormand in Fargo? Pregnant sheriff? Devoted wife and mother? Very smart, but patient and polite?
Yeah, meet Mildred Hayes, her twin sister from hell. In both films, you can read her face through her eyes. But as opposed to Fargo, where she is tough but amused, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, those eyes are dangerous. Step out of line and you could find yourself surprised by a fist to the face or a knee to the groin. Mildred holds nothing back. She is vengeance personified.
In a gem of a film written and directed by English playwright Martin McDonagh, small-town life in Missouri bears a similarity to small-town life in Ireland or England. Everybody knows everybody. There’s a certain tranquility to life in the country, but it’s not immune to violence and suffering.
Mildred knows this all too well. Her teenage daughter was raped and murdered on a lonely country road just outside of town. It’s been seven months and no progress has been made by the local police in solving the case.
Mildred thinks the sheriff’s department has given up on her daughter. She’s not sure if it’s because of ineptness or apathy, but she does believe that without nagging and even berating the police, nothing about her daughter’s death will ever get solved.
Driving down the road where her daughter died, she notices three blank billboards and decides to pay for three messages, each of them taunting the town’s sheriff.
The billboards cause a stir in town. No one likes them. Not her own son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), her abusive husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), and especially not Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) or his redneck officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Mildred, however, believes that, having grabbed the town’s attention, she can push to get the investigation back on track.
In a case of unforeseen consequences, however, Mildred’s billboards result in several dark turns that put her life and her family’s security in jeopardy. They also tweak her own moral boundaries. How far will she go to get justice?
Director McDonagh is playing a card game with his audience. While the dark comedy in Three Billboards is appealing, there’s a shuffling of the deck that you don’t see until the final chapter. Show a card here, hide a card there, hold the aces until just the right moment.
What appears to be a dark Coen-like comedy is really an exploration of grief; how it can steal our humanness, bend our sanity and send us spiraling down a road without a destination. Grief as rage. Grief as vengeance. Grief without resolution. The audience comes to wonder if and when Mildred can ever find peace. Skillful playwright McDonagh toys with us and leaves the question hanging in the air.
McDormand is a delight to watch — a mixture of strength, vulnerability and rage; a woman turned vigilante who can’t shake her own guilt over her daughter’s death.
As her foil, Harrelson is a worthy opponent, sympathetic to her cause, yet irritated by his public embarrassment and haunted by his impending fate. He wants the truth but knows all too well his own limitations. Sam Rockwell also provides depth as an A-hole deputy who comes to understand Mildred’s anger and, rather than feed her abuse, decides to join her quest.
McDonagh has provided a country tale with a sharp-sword exploration of the realities of death. While Three Billboards is initially funny, it’s cutting in its end result.
Whether you go to the countryside in Ebbing or the brick alleys of London, death and grief are all too common. For McDonagh, what’s not common is the way we react. So he implies that when death touches us, we shouldn’t be surprised if we wake up far down the road and ask ourselves: How did we get here?