Written, directed, and produced by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced mother dealing with the assault and murder of her daughter. Much to the dismay of Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his deputy Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), uses three billboards just outside her town to shed light on the local police department’s inefficiency in trying to locate the perpetrator.
But, in fact, the billboards turn into much more than just a means to an end. They become a site for conversation, exchange, grief, and conflict. The way in which they’re employed to not only instigate the events of the story, but also to bring an entire town to life, all while shedding light on the hushed social issues that still plague the South (to this day), is quite brilliant. It’s an affirmation of McDonagh’s screenwriting abilities and one that should be duly recognised.
Where Three Billboards truly shines is the quiet moments its characters share, and these moments are only amplified in importance because of how well-written and well-developed the characters are, so much so that the viewer understands what is at stake for each character with each passing event.
In what can only be described as a tour-de-force, Frances McDormand leads the formidable ensemble. While she doesn’t seem like the most original character in the beginning (we’ve all seen the cynical, grieving, impulsive hardass before), the way McDormand presents her Mildred is so powerful, physically and emotionally, that it is difficult not to marvel at her, much less imagine the film without her. But perhaps where her performance is most piercing is Mildred’s determination to pursue an unattainable truth — one about her daughter (who is refreshingly absent from the majority of the film) and one about Mildred herself: that sometimes we cannot get all the answers we seek; that we must live with the guilt and the pain we feel until we forget, or pretend to forget. Masked to perfection, her desperation for closure and justice, her inability to acknowledge a life after her daughter, and her isolation are devastating, for it is in the unwavering spirit she displays — one as impressive as it is incredibly sad — that the actress soars: as a performer, as a woman, and above all else, as a mother.
Deserving of equal praise is Sam Rockwell for his supporting work as Jason Dixon, an arrogant, racist, often dim-witted officer working on the Hayes cases. A prime example of character development, Dixon’s story arc is one of the highlights of the film, as he turns from an unlikable fool into a humbled human. By bouncing between comedy and tragedy, McDonagh offers his characters — primarily Mildred and Dixon — a chance to truly explore their range, and the way in which Dixon develops into a favourite is astonishing, yet somehow completely expected. It is, by far, one of the best supporting performances of the year, and one I would not be so surprised to see propel him all the way to the Dolby Theater come Oscar night. However, there’s something to be said about winning an award for playing an abusive character in an awards climate so charged with social responsibility, as there is a case to be made about redemption and second chances.
McDonagh’s characters are authentic in that they are so flawed — at times unforgivably. I would venture as far as to call them bad people, whether by nature or by circumstance. From Mildred’s destructive grieving process to Dixon’s questionable past, McDonagh doesn’t shy away from these qualities, but invites judgment with open arms. And it is in these flaws — the personal pains of these characters — that the film transforms into an exploration of the violence that comes with grief, whether physical or emotional.
The billboards not only charge the people of Ebbing, Missouri, but also bring them far closer together than one would ever think possible at the beginning of this film. In a series of events that seem to fall into place almost too perfectly, the most important lesson overcomes: the indispensable need for one another. The characters seem to unconsciously find their way back to each other, and find closure and comfort in one another.
What McDonagh has created here is a heartbreaking exercise in human compassion, and it is one of the best films of the year.