I consider it my right and responsibility to convince you that for the love of cinema, everyone with taste should make a particular point of seeing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is the third and best feature from UK writer and director Martin McDonagh, whose previous pictures include In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), both of them spirited place-based narratives with variably successful executions. With Three Billboards, McDonagh has hit his stride, particularly with the screenplay. McDonagh’s characters achieve complexity and depth that most writers don’t even know how to imagine, let alone create, and he does it with brilliant thrift. Just watch how the characters turn on a dime from vile to sympathetic and back again.
Frances McDormand stars as Mildred, a single mother who lost her teenage daughter to rape and murder in the hopelessly Midwestern town of Ebbing. Seven months later, the murder is still unsolved, and Mildred commissions a series of three billboards on a rarely traveled road to highlight the murder in graphic detail. Specifically, the billboards implicate police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for failing to uncover any leads.
You might assume that the story unravels from there into a whodunit murder mystery, all “everyone’s a suspect”—but it’s nothing like that. Three Billboards is a movie about people, the choices they make, what motivates those choices and all the many ways they will try, succeed and fail at loving one another. The unsolved murder’s just a cloak of grief hanging sadly in the background.
It’s obvious and true that McDormand shines in her role as a revenge-obsessed mother. And she gets the lion’s share of the script’s colorful language, for example (is it necessary to print this in its entirety, or simply my pleasure?): “This didn’t put an end to shit, you fucking retard; this is just the fucking start. Why don’t you put that on your Good Morning Missouri fucking wake up broadcast, bitch?” Still, there’s a soft heart under all that gristle.
Mildred on her own would be enough, but it’s the treasure trove of supporting characters that make Three Billboards such a special and entertaining experience. We have John Hawkes as Mildred’s sleazy ex-husband and Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) as the surviving son, each of them dealing with the death in a way that doesn’t involve posting giant billboards. Peter Dinklage shows up as a potential love interest for Mildred, but it’s not quite what you think. Willoughby’s got a hapless deputy named Dixon in tow, played by Sam Rockwell with a perplexing blend of ignorance, cruelty and sincerity—as award season approaches, you can expect acting nominations for McDormand and Rockwell, at the very least.
But wait, there’s more. We’ve got Caleb Landry Jones as the billboard ad salesman with heart and snark in equal measure. (Seriously, he’s 2017s character actor MVP. Look for that striking face in Get Out, American Made, Twin Peaks and The Florida Project.) And hey, wow, does anybody remember Brendan Sexton III, Dawn’s bully boyfriend in Welcome to the Dollhouse, a rapist in Boys Don’t Cry and my number one indie film teenage crush? The typecasting persists, but I’m just happy to see him alive and well.
Any hints of sentimentality in Three Billboards are quickly redeemed with the reminder that life is bleak and terrible, as evidenced by its savage and super satisfying bursts of violence. Is this what Missourians are really like? I kind of doubt it (this is a British filmmaker), but hey, it would be cool if they were!
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens at the Roxy Fri., Dec. 1.