Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is almost unrelentingly bleak, which makes its glimpses of hope and forgiveness that much more moving.
Hard truths and harder personalities abound in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a Southern Gothic powder keg directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. His three feature films—In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths and now his latest—exist in the nebulous margins between quirky comedy and violent tragedy, pushing against the boundaries of both so that they become almost perversely interchangeable. The approach underlines some of life’s more unnerving absurdities, fixed as they are to the film’s simple set-up: A trio of decrepit billboards sit unused on a lonely road outside a small rural town until the day Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) marches into the local ad office and draws up a contract to rent them for a year, forking over $5,000 for the one-month down payment. The billboards are painted bright red and adorned with three messages printed in large black text: “RAPED WHILE DYING.” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS.” “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”
Attention grabbing, to be sure. The thoroughly embittered Mildred, we come to learn, lost her teenage daughter when an unknown assailant raped her, killed her and set her dead body on fire. The billboards are an attempt to gain the attention of local sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who worked the case until a lack of DNA evidence brought the investigation to a halt. Willoughby, incensed by the messages, enters into a battle of wills with Mildred, and it seems McDonagh is setting the stage for a social justice drama about an aggrieved citizen standing up to corrupt and ineffective systems of authority. Mildred’s suggestion that Willoughby and his men are too busy “torturing black folks” to find her daughter’s killer echoes Joe Arpaio and other recent controversies involving crooked local law enforcement. But as the film unfolds, the black-and-white lines of morality gradually bleed into a stark shade of grey, forcing us to question Mildred’s intentions: How far will she go for justice? Is she speaking truth to power, or simply off her rocker? And, perhaps most crucially, just where is this story going?
The short answer: not where you think. The film isn’t a righteous take on complacent cops, female empowerment or toxic masculinity, although it sits squarely within and draws a bright light on those topics; it’s not a whodunit or a thriller, nor is it beholden to any sort of genre whatsoever; there are no good guys or bad guys or really anyone to root for; the storytelling is completely self-aware, and McDonagh frequently lets the audience in on the joke, but the scenarios are so prickly and cold to the touch that the laughter is more nervous than genuine.
There are few conventional comforts in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a swirling vortex of dark humor, anger and salvation buoyed by a true force of personality. McDormand, in her strongest role since Fargo, plays one of the year’s best and most complex screen characters in Mildred Hayes, whose pursuits, unlike those of your typical antihero, are inherently moral. Her performance is simultaneously sympathetic and off-putting, and much like the film itself, she shows the viewer moments of overpowering humanity in the darkest, most derisive of situations.
McDonagh got his start in the theater, and it isn’t completely unfair to say he’s more of a writer than a visual stylist. His dialogue here is rich and unique, and characters are prone to poignant monologues that reveal the depths of their thoughts and feelings. Willoughby, it turns out, isn’t the cruel and indifferent cop we initially believe him to be, and not just because it’s revealed that he’s dying of cancer. His fears, doubts and frustrations with life are gradually shown to be in lock step with Mildred’s, but where she sees a path to redemption, however twisted and reckless it may be, Willoughby doesn’t. She seems to represent dogged determination in the face of an indifferent universe, while he symbolizes the sort of graceful resignation of a man at the end of his rope. These layers are revealed in powerful scenes driven by robust conversation, stylized so that the characters and situations remain just outside the confines of everyday reality. People don’t talk like this in real life, but the overwhelming honesty pierces through the pretense.
That said, some of the film’s best moments are completely unattached to dialogue: a patch of charred grass amid a vast field of green, drops of blood on a pale white floor, shards of broken glass littered beneath a small town’s only stoplight. Images like these go a long way in illustrating how a town’s wounds are its people’s wounds. The ease of violence is somehow more pronounced in places where violence seems the least likely. The film has the makings of a revenge saga, but it’s also a movie in which emotions and allegiances are constantly in flux. As more and more townsfolk—including a racist local cop (Sam Rockwell) and a local businessman (Caleb Landry Jones)—become embroiled in Mildred’s crusade, the story eventually dislodges itself from its initial conflict, becoming something altogether more chaotic and yet, somehow, more thoughtful and poetic. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is almost unrelentingly bleak, which makes its glimpses of hope and forgiveness that much more moving.