Director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) possess two crucial understandings of what creates excellence in character building. The first, is the belief in the duality of human nature and that the version we are today isn’t always the version of ourselves tomorrow; that pain, grief and joy can all warp a different iteration of who we are. The second, is his ability to conquer multiple tonalities so that humor can be found in the darkest of moments and tragedy in beauty, doing this without ever sacrificing the film at hand to what a singular scene needs it to be. A master filmmaker and even better scribe, one who can have their main character lead the charge against a dying chief of police for inaction due her daughter’s murder, a cop who he thinks his job is just about terrorizing townsfolk and a whole litany of characters who swim in the pool of the morally gray and allow them moments of sincere redemption or humanity. Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri is a tremendous film,oftentimes hilarious, but at it’s core it’s heartfelt, and that’s what give it its ability to stick.
More than half a year has gone by since the horrific death and assault of her daughter and Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has grown sick and tired of it. Deciding to take matters into her own hands after time spent feeling powerless, she purchases for three signs leading into town with a message directed at Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). The town is soon in an uproar against Mildred for inciting such hate against someone they think of as honorable and revered with the simple minded Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) leading the charge. A small town with small minded, insensitive, but all trying to be decent residents, Mildred is once again on the outside looking in, but this time she’s ready for it.
From where it begins to where it ends is one of the scripts most interesting aspects as characters weave through one another’s peripheral vision, all coming together on random nights at the town bar. Every character, particularly Mildred, Dixon and Willoughby aren’t the same versions of themselves as they were when this newest journey began. McDonagh’s script is clever without being cruel and beautifully layered without being deceitful. It’s main priority is human nature, which he catches in every moment of the film that transpires.
Mildred could’ve been played in such a way that would diminish the natural sympathy we feel for her and her loss but the script and McDormand’s performance allow her moments that show her being comforting, comical and a mix of the two. They’re very transparent that she’s not doing what she’s doing to be cruel but to make a point. She’s pragmatic, and she wants her daughter’s death to be avenged. She’ll do anything in her might to make that a possibility, even if it means coming to the painful realization that it won’t bring her daughter make. Her moments of biting take downs and physical assault are juxtaposed to such a moments of delicacy, such as when she turns a struggling beetle right side up, or when she offers sweet, worrying words to Willoughby. How can we see her as a bully when we also see her talking to a lonesome deer who has wandered into her path, crying and her inability to believe that it could be some reincarnation of her daughter?
Rockwell may have had the more difficult job of all the main players as he begins the story in the most heinous position. To spoil his arc would be a disservice to the film but know that Rockwell is as electric as he’s ever been, playing with so much behind his eyes. Like McDormand, Rockwell easily could’ve coasted on a broader performance and,in a lesser actors hands, the character would never have been able to do all that he was able to and be more than strictly a villain. Rockwell has a deeply earned sense of empathy for his character though and it bleeds onto the screen. He and McDormand deliver two of the finest performances of the year. In a cast of great faces, ones that look as if they were etched and pulled together to be captured on film, they, along with Harrelson, do so much with so little.
Elsewhere the film soars with technical elements that help create something hauntingly immersive. Carter Burwell created the score which ebbed and flowed with the scenes, bringing us to the emotional highs and simmering with us in discontent during the lows, presenting twinges of his score for Miller’s Crossing.
The cinematography by Ben Davis does beautiful work contrasting the intimate, small town nature of Ebbing, keeping scenes confined especially when certain characters are feeling the walls caving in. By contrast he utilizes the wonder of the natural scenery surrounding them to create something vast. The world is big and and it lays right beyond the town’s reach but we see as the weight of the unknown rests on them.
The films greatest asset is that it is uncompromising in its depiction of rage and how those feelings can both be detrimental and serve an acute purpose. Mildred deserves to be angry, she deserves the right to put up billboards, tear down walls and scream to the above that she and her family have been given a fucked up hand in life. Her anger hurts her as much as it does those around her though, even her son and others she’d consider friends, but we feel for her and it’s because the film never invalidates her anger. On the flip side, the script never validates Dixon’s volatility, understanding that his anger and racist motives don’t become excused because of a trying and warped home life. It presents these two versions of anger in contrast as one has been beaten into one by a life if trauma and life while the other, Dixon, took it up because he thought violence came with the job.
A harsh look at loss, potent misogyny and the insidious nature of unchecked racism while also being a dark comedy, a stirring tragedy and above all else a remarkable and raw character study, the film masters it’s tone. It’s an immensely powerful and beautiful film and yet another reminder that the talent on board are some of the very best cinema has to offer. More than though it’s a tough look at a mother’s love, senseless loss and the hope that can be found, even if you only get to experience it in small pockets of time. One of the strongest examples of filmmaking this year, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will draw you in for the laughs and performances, but will linger long after with it’s determination in demonstrating that human beings, no matter their follies, have the capacity to change, and that’s a fuckin’ hell of a thing.
This is an edited reprint from the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. To read further TIFF 2017 coverage, go here.