by Philip Price
In the first scene of writer/director Martin McDonagh's (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) new film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Mildred Pierce (Frances McDormand) drives past three billboards that are falling apart on an old road outside the titular small town she lives in that no one has used since the freeway opened. Hell, the last time a company even utilized the billboards for actual advertising was Huggies in the mid-‘80s. Due to the contemplative look on Mildred's face we know the inciting incident is set to occur at any moment, but more important is the fact we take in the appearance of Mildred. Her hair is down, her clothes rather casual, and while Mildred never seems like she was ever the kind of woman to get too made-up, she looks to be in a certain place in her life that, while not peaceful, is one where she's come to terms with the reality of her situation. You see, Mildred's daughter was murdered a year or so prior to the beginning of the film and the investigation by her local police department seems to have waned over time-Mildred stating she hadn't heard a peep from them in at least seven months-prompting her to take matters into her own hands, but not in the manner of a revenge fantasy a la The Punisher or a recent Quentin Tarantino flick, but more in the vein of calling out those responsible for seeking her daughter's killer and rapist and holding them accountable for failing at their civil responsibilities. If you've seen the trailers you know Mildred does this by renting the three billboards to send a very clear message to the Ebbing police department, calling out Police Chief George Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in particular. Once Mildred goes through with this though, her look changes and, in turn, so must her mentality. No more does Mildred ever look as casual as she does in that first scene. No more does it feel as if Mildred might ever be at peace with what has occurred in her life. Rather, from the end of this scene on through to the end of the movie Mildred pulls her hair up into a tight ponytail, the back of her neck now shaved as if to say she has no frills about what she's doing. Never again do we see her in public with her hair down or her wearing anything resembling khaki or flannel, but rather Mildred only wears her industrial work uniform and bandana. This outward exterior that takes no crap from no one is key to her surviving the ramifications that come from her actions and the complexities she didn't expect because of those actions. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” takes on this exterior as well, but don't be fooled as this is one of the most brutal, funny, dark, sad, and best movies of the year.
What is so impressive about the film though, is that despite having this unbelievably original and intriguing premise of a mother who has lost her child who goes to unexpected ends to ensure she finds some type of solace in the fact the scum who defiled her daughter before killing her are brought to some type of justice, this isn't all the movie is about. While this would seemingly be enough to tackle for most movies and for most writers and directors McDonagh goes past the point of his premise to investigate the inner-workings of each of the people involved in his narrative. While this is Mildred's story, and undoubtedly McDormand's movie as she gives a genuine whirlwind of a performance, this is also about Harrelson's Willoughby, Sam Rockwell's Officer Dixon, and to smaller, but vital degrees to the extent they inform the perception of some of the main characters, are Caleb Landry Jones' Welby and Lucas Hedges as Mildred's other child, Robbie. Each of these individuals feel like proper individuals in that they are fully drawn characters and not just archetypes that exist to help get our more complicated main players from one emotional state or plot point to the next. As much as Mildred kind of dictates the actions of everyone around her by her own brazen choices, the people in her life and community are very much their own people reacting to what is going on. This is especially true of Rockwell's Dixon who, when we initially meet him, is a cop that has been labeled as explosive, violent, and largely irrational. There is a stain on his reputation after he beat up a black man who was already in custody and while Rockwell plays the guy as a largely unstable and unpredictable mental health case McDonagh vaguely outlines why Dixon feels so insecure and enraged at this point in his life as he's still living at home with his Momma (Sandy Martin) who very clearly offers him no respect and has recently lost his father which seems to have sent him into a tailspin of seeking a masculine validity of sorts in the workplace. It is in McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell's characters that McDonagh sets up these people who audiences think they might recognize or will be led to believe are the heroes and villains of the piece, but there are no single-faceted characters here. These are real people, people who have lived in this small town their entire lives and know everyone for better or worse. These are people who can be both easy to hate and the next scene evoke a large amount of sympathy. There is one scene in particular where this change happens within the scene in that the characters go from arguing with one another to being there for one another and this translates to the reactive side of the partnership of movie and audience in a striking way that tells us these aren't just vehicles to make a statement for McDonagh, but rather they are human beings who each have their own lives happening that just so happen to contribute to the overall arc that McDonagh has detailed for us.
All this anger. It just begets greater anger. Charlie (the always welcome John Hawkes), Mildred's ex-husband, advises his ex-wife of this despite the fact he heard it from his new, nineteen year-old girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving), and while the source may be a little shaky for Mildred to deal with it is a saying that comes into the fold in a scene in the last act of the film where it's necessary for a kind of revelation to take place-a kind of clarity for this town that has devolved into full-fledged chaos-that hints at the greater objective of the film. Like I said before, though “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” isn't exactly interested in making a broad statement or expressing any main ideas it can't really help but to do so with as eclectic and varied a group of personalities as it has assembled. Rather than allow his screenplay to explicitly state its intentions at the end of the first act though, McDonagh allows what might be his desired topic of discussion to be expressed through these characters and the humanity they each possess. What does it stand to say then, you might ask? Well, the rest of that saying goes, "Anger begets more anger, and forgiveness and love lead to more forgiveness and love." So, one can imagine where McDonagh is going with this, but of course this is never stated outright and if you know McDonagh's past work and/or his style at all you'll know this idea is never presented in a way that feels as if he's lulling what he wants to say at the audience as he is actually doing the opposite and going as hard into the fold as one can in order to show audiences how ugly things can be if there is no room for ideas such as forgiveness and love. There are plenty of other quotes about anger that the director could have used-ones that would indicate that no matter what Mildred does out of such emotion, that she will be the one who ultimately gets burned-but this isn't the perspective McDonagh wants his audience to see this situation from. No, McDonagh uses the quote as spoken by Hawkes to state this isn't about one person learning a lesson from another or from such experiences, but more that we all learn from our experiences and, if nothing else, he hopes that a situation as terrible as what these characters are going through will ultimately produce more love and understanding rather than continued hatred and bigotry. It's not like we couldn't all use a reminder that it's possible for light to come at the end of a very dark tunnel right now, either. In short, McDonagh doesn't care if you like these characters, he just wants you to find them interesting and go along on this journey with them. The best of these people still have flaws and the worst still have their redemptive qualities; it seems we'd be wise to remind ourselves of that more often right now.
The most striking aspect of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” though, is how it becomes a better and better movie the longer it runs. It is impossibly difficult for a movie to accomplish this as most tend to start well or at least deliver a solid set-up before running into the problem of not knowing to do with what they've set up. It is this point in the screenwriting process when most writers will default to familiar and/or the recurring devices, motifs, or clichés of other movies. In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” McDonagh is somehow able to kind of blow past traditional structure and instead just deliver an experience that feels as if it is flying by the seat of its pants. This was something I didn't necessarily expect as the first 25 or so minutes of the film play as the same sequence of events outlined in the trailers, but there is a definitive turning point in the film where the story then continues past the information that viewers were sold in the trailers and from here McDonagh only continues to up the stakes and create scenarios in which he's allowed to infuse as much with his sharp and unabashed dialogue. This is only to say that as it goes on and as the turns the narrative take are more and more surprising and shocking the writing and performances only serve to enhance the experience even more. By the end of the film and for hours after and into the next day now I can't help but to continue thinking about all the different aspects included in this script and all that could be taken from it if so desired. On top of that, I can't stop smiling when considering McDormand's performance and how her Mildred lives by her own code and how she is more than determined to seek this brand of justice no matter what it does to other people in her life. How, even with this shameless edge of hers, McDormand is still able to produce a side of real humanity and decency where we fully respect the mission Mildred is on even if we don't always agree with how she goes about it. I couldn't stop reminding myself of all the other great characters that are in the film outside of the major players as well such as Peter Dinklage as a dwarf who sells used cars and has a drinking problem or Zeljko Ivanek as a Sergeant who's been stressed about keeping the rest of the force in line and politically correct as far back as he can remember with Abbie Cornish being the lone exception in an otherwise stellar ensemble as her accent is atrocious. Moreover, the film has stayed with me as certain moments replay and the epic tragedy of what all is depicted in what do otherwise basic and humble appearances consistently move me to admiration; as such, I can't help but to feel “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is truly a rarity.