Writer/director Marin McDonagh is no stranger to tackling difficult or challenging material. His first feature, In Bruges, centered on a hitman having an existential crisis, while his second, Seven Psychopaths, focused on a screenwriter sucked into a world of gangsters and psychotic killers. Despite their violent concepts, both films surprisingly focus on introspective examination to move their stories forward. In this way, their stories are more about the ways violence affects the characters versus how the characters create violence. In many ways, McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri continues this tradition while also being the most violent yet. Centered on three grief-stricken individuals who are forced to face their own culpability for their lives, Three Billboards, challenges not only the characters and their level of responsibility, but also the audience and their assumptions. What results is a tragedy-filled comedy whose parts combine to create the best film I’ve seen all year.
Seven months have passed without a single update from the police about the murder of Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) daughter. Frustrated and angry, Mildred rents three billboards along a road leading to town with a message directed at the esteemed Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his perceived inaction. Though the signs do succeed in getting the Ebbing police to get back to work on the cold case, Mildred’s billboards also put her in the cross-hairs of anyone who knows Willoughby. In the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, that means everyone: her family, the citizens of Ebbing, and the police. In the aftermath of great loss, all Mildred has left is her steely resolve, and she’ll need it when Willoughby’s second-in-command, hot-heated and violence-prone Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), decides to involve himself in the perceived slight against his boss. As these three stalwart and unyielding forces converge, it becomes clear that this is about more than justice; it’s about finding peace.
The premise of Three Billboards opens simple enough. A mother, angry at the lack of justice for her daughter, takes a public, completely legal swing at the police to incite action. It’s a clear, straight-forward narrative that immediately places the audience on Mildred’s side. In their introductions, each character appears like the icon you expect: the devoted mother, the racist deputy, the lazy Chief. However, once the billboards go up, it slowly becomes evident that no one is innocent, no one is pure, and no one is who they appear. Because there are sides and this war is personal, the audience assumes some amount of responsibility for whom they support. By forcing the audience to reconsider their perceptions and their allegiances to each character multiple times throughout the film as more and more information is revealed, the narrative takes the audience through a surprising and emotionally evocative journey. To some degree, Mildred, Willoughby, and Dixon each maintain some amount of culpability for the anger, frustration, and grief they carry. Little by little, McDonagh reveals more and more about each of these three, making their internal struggles unmistakable and their ethical positions less and less absolute.
The narrative isn’t the only thing challenging about Three Billboards; the score possesses an identity all its own. Marking composer Carter Burwell’s third collaboration with McDonagh, the score is crafted to uniquely capture the feel of small-town southern culture at war by merging acoustical blue grass with Ennio Morricone-inspired western intonation. What results is a transformative acoustic experience that adds additional depth to the cinematography and performances. Like Han Zimmer’s The Dark Knight or John Williams’s Star Wars, scores which uniquely adjust for each of the core characters yet fit well within the larger theme of each film, Burwell’s score tailors itself to the characters, growing and changing as they do throughout the film. For example, the film introduces us to the empty billboards and to Mildred with a folksy whimsical melody which later shifts to a melancholic arrhythmic refrain as Willoughby contemplates his life and participation in the current situation. Filling each scene with equal parts southern charm and gunslinger tension, Burwell’s score is as charming as it is evocative, making an already impressive film all the more impactful.
Like his other films, McDonagh pulls from a deep well of talent. Returning are Zeljko Ivanek (Argo), Abbie Cornish (Geostorm), Harrelson, and Rockwell, with new additions Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), John Hawkes (The Sessions), Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), and McDormand. Unlike most large ensemble casts where many are wasted talents in small, unimportant roles, McDonagh wastes zero real estate. Though not every role is essential to the larger undercurrent theme, they are all significant players in the small town of Ebbing. Each delivers a strong performance, contributing to the bed-rock for the main three: Harrelson, Rockwell, and McDormand. All of the main three begin Three Billboards as the stereotypes you expect from the trailers, yet in a film filled with talent, each manages to deliver a gut-punching performance. Harrelson got to let loose and have fun in Seven Psychopaths, but in Three Billboards he’s tasked with a smaller, quieter character; man who recognizes and is frustrated by the limitations of humanity. Initially set up as an imbecile by Mildred, Willoughby is presented by Harrelson as not only a good cop, but as a smart, funny, caring man capable of keeping his cool when all others are losing theirs. In this case, that role goes to Rockwell, an actor always capable of playing, and disappearing into, any personality. Initially, Rockwell’s Dixon is presented as the stereotypical Southern good ole’ boy cop filled with hate and quick to outbursts of violence. Rockwell, however, through sheer will – and with the assistance of clever writing – successfully makes Dixon a sympathetic character whose arc is simultaneously satisfying and emotionally powerful. Then there’s McDormand – just give her the Oscar now. Her performance as Mildred is absolutely mesmerizing no matter how furious her movements or still her actions. It’s a masterful performance from an actor still at the top of her game. McDormand presents Mildred as a force of nature, unstoppable and unyielding whether she’s verbally sparring with Willoughby or Dixon or any of the “concerned” townsfolk.
Without a doubt Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is the finest film 2017 has released. For all of its violent bluster and sarcastic charm, Three Billboards is a deeply heartfelt examination of grief that will stick with you long after you leave the theater. For what begins as a straight-forward tale of a mother’s unrelenting love and quest for justice, slowly unfurls itself as a deeper, more complex exploration of our responsibility to each other; that if we don’t care for one another, should something terrible befall us, even in a small way, we are responsible and need to make it right. In this way, Three Billboards is truly art imitating life: simultaneously chilling and hopeful, and in possession of an abstract ending.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.