This time the chick won’t lose.
Martin McDonagh is no stranger to suffering. Indeed, the writer and director has made a career out of writing characters who are each struggling in their own unique, bone-shaking ways. Seven Psychopaths followed a group of men, some murderous and some not, finding themselves unable to accept the difference between the world they wanted and the one they got, while In Bruges centered around a clumsy hitman dealing with a sudden wave of suicidal depression, following his unintended murder of an innocent altar boy. But with his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has decided to tackle loss in the most direct and painful way yet.
Set in the titular Missouri town, Three Billboards follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) when she discovers three old, blank billboards sitting on the side of a gravel backroad leading to her house. Entranced by them, Mildred decides to pay for her own message to be put up on the billboards, reminding the town that her daughter had been raped and murdered seven months prior, and that the Ebbing police department has made little-to-no actual breaks in the case.
Predictably, the billboards cause quite a stir among the Ebbing townsfolk, mostly in response to Mildred specifically calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – a man well-respected and loved by the entire town – by name on one of them. What follows after that is a wending and often unpredictable story, in which Mildred fights to keep the billboards up, even as more and more people work to tear them down. Chief among them is Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon, an immature and violent officer in the town, who feels a particular obligation of loyalty to Willoughby.
As with all of his previous stage and big screen efforts, McDonagh’s script is precise and tragic in a way that no other artist working today has quite managed to replicate. Here, his characters are at their most raw and truthful, with each working hard to keep their best shields up, only for their inner pain to frequently cut through. McDonagh’s signature black comedy still remains, and for anyone who watched In Bruges is already familiar with, so are the intense and complicated emotions needed to fuel the film’s sometimes ludicrously entertaining conversations.
It doesn’t hurt that McDonagh has, once again, entrusted some of the best actors working today with delivering his words. But while everyone in the film deserves their fair share of praise, it’s Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand who shine brightest. Mildred is a character written, quite purposefully, from a place of constant anger and McDormand keys into that with perfection. Everything she says or does, from a pointed verbal takedown of a belligerent townsperson to a cock of her eyebrow, comes from a place of rage, frustration, and helplessness. It’s one of McDormand’s finest performances, and stands out as one of the best likely to be seen in 2017.
While Mildred operates from varying levels of the same emotion throughout the entirety of Three Billboards, though, Rockwell has the largest character arc of anyone in the film as Dixon. A character who is desperate to be respected and capable of showing great love for others, but who also finds himself incapable of translating that into his everyday actions, Dixon is a role most actors might have shied away from or been unable to bring the correct level of depth to. But Rockwell has proven time and again how immensely talented he is as an actor, and Three Billboards gives him the chance to show that off once again.
There are some minor nitpicks to be made, like the film’s limited use of a flashback that doesn’t go really anywhere and bring anything more to it, or the sometimes strange writing early on with Willoughby’s wife, Anne (Abbie Cornish). But none of that takes away from the honesty or emotion in Three Billboards, which succeeds because of how much care it gives to every single one of its characters.
Because even among all of the film’s anger or comedic violence, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri recognizes the profound truth that anyone who’s suffered the loss of a loved one already knows, that the wound they’ve left will never truly close or be filled in. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find different ways to cope with its existence, whether that be by putting flowers around it, or by firing off a shotgun blast that echoes through the minds of everyone around you.