Whether it’s Our Town or Dogville, fiction occasionally uses small towns as a microcosm for America at large, showing what’s wonderful or toxic about our country. Judging by the new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the state of our union is fractious and violent—and only getting worse. You probably didn’t need a movie to tell you that, but writer-director Martin McDonagh’s volatile comedy-drama keeps poking at our scabs, pinpointing our humanity and surprising us with a series of small revelations. This is a film that’s proudly impertinent but also deeply morally serious. And even if Three Billboards doesn’t always hold together, that’s appropriate for its anxious characters who are, themselves, a little unsteady.
The film stars Frances McDormand as Mildred, a divorced mother who lives in a rural Missouri community. Everybody in a small town knows everybody else’s business, and Mildred is Ebbing’s walking tragedy: She’s the woman whose teen daughter was recently raped and murdered. Unhappy that the local police force, led by the cantankerous Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), has failed to find her girl’s killer, Mildred decides to take action, buying up three billboards outside of town and splashing an accusing message across them: “Raped while dying. And still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?”
The billboards create a sensation in this little burb, irritating Willoughby but incensing his hothead underling, a rookie cop named Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who has a reputation for being especially vicious in his handling of African-American suspects. Some want Mildred to take the billboards down, but she refuses: The way she figures it, the more attention she brings to the months-old case, the better chance there is of the perpetrators being found.
An acclaimed playwright who also wrote and directed In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh incorporates the same unruly mixture of corrosive language, brutal violence and soulful characters that have been the hallmarks of his previous film work. There’s nothing quaint or homespun about Ebbing’s denizens, and McDonagh gives them a no-nonsense simplicity that allows for blunt exchanges. People in Three Billboards say what they think, and because it’s McDonagh providing the dialogue, they’re often funny and eloquent in a plainspoken way. But early on in the film, there’s also a clear indication that Mildred’s simmering resentment and pain is just one of the festering wounds in this town. And by escalating matters with the police, she’s lit a fuse.
McDormand plays Mildred with righteous fury, reveling in the character’s gruff, ass-kicking demeanor. Mildred is all too happy to tell off the priest who comes to her home to advocate taking down the billboards—the tirade she delivers about the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church feels pent-up, prepared, as if she’s been waiting her whole life to start giving people a piece of her mind. But the Oscar-winning actress also twists the knife, showing how pleased Mildred is with her own insolence. There’s no question this mother has good reason to be aggrieved, but slowly McDormand and McDonagh reveal the anger and unpleasantness that, we come to suspect, might have always been there—even before this tragedy. This is a tricky proposition, but McDormand challenges our ability to easily sympathize with Mildred. As traumatized as she is by her daughter’s death—a crime, which we’ll discover, has also provoked a lot of guilt on her part—she can be quite cruel to those trying to be kind, most memorably during a wonderfully awkward date with Peter Dinklage’s shy, sweet suitor.
Three Billboards constantly pushes against our assumptions. People who seem to be victims are shown to be more complicated than we first thought. Villains might not be so wicked—or, at the very least, have the capacity to change. But none of this is done with an ounce of saccharine. (Characters don’t hug or learn life lessons in this movie.) Mildred’s battle with the cops leads to increasingly raised stakes—not everyone gets out of Three Billboards alive—and McDonagh keeps surprising us with the way characters behave. Two bitter rivals suddenly drop their animosity during a horrifying moment, one calling the other “honey” unexpectedly, suggesting a lifetime of shared history we knew nothing about. In Three Billboards, as in life, we really never know anyone completely.
For a movie about the rape and murder of a young woman, this is an incredibly funny and dark comedy, McDonagh exploring the gallows humor that is his specialty. And the filmmaker isn’t afraid to be lowbrow or slapstick, even during the most upsetting sequences. Three Billboards loves torpedoing stupidity and sacred cows, taking aim at intellectual laziness and social niceties with a bracing contempt. One character’s death is staged, in part, as a sick joke at the expense of another character. Narratively, nothing is off limits, and yet McDonagh never feels needlessly vindictive in his machinations. His characters are deeply flawed, but on some level he respects their brazen devotion to their own codes of conduct.
Three Billboards’ tonal shifts don’t always work, and there’s one crucial plot point that feels inorganic to everything that lead up to it. But McDonagh’s cast keeps the story grounded in regular-folks realism. Harrelson is very amusing as a put-upon lawman whose annoyance with Mildred is compounded by his frustration that he can’t find her daughter’s killer. Rockwell can sometimes be too broad in his portrayal of the racist dunderhead Dixon, but that lays the groundwork for the unlikely but rewarding journey the character goes on.
That journey is tied to the film’s ultimate theme, which concerns the prevalence of violence in our culture—and the way that it becomes contagious, one horrible act seemingly provoking the next. It’s not solely an American problem, but McDonagh weaves it into the DNA of Ebbing so convincingly that the town feels indistinguishable from the country as a whole. For a movie this wiseass and jagged, it’s no shock that Three Billboards offers zero answers for how to correct this national scourge. Even at its ending, the film remains open to the idea that maybe retaliation remains the best option—even if it’s violence leveled at someone not involved in the crime at hand. This is a very funny movie, but its final moments give off a chilly unease.
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
Release Date: November 10, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.