Movie Review: 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Director Martin McDonagh tells a tale of small town tragedy that makes you laugh to keep from crying.
I had no idea what to expect when I purchased my ticket for this film. The description of this film as a dark comedy seemed to be in stark contrast to a plot that centers around a young girl being raped and murdered. Given the other films Martin McDonagh has made (while they are mostly quite good), I wondered if he was going to be too stylish and edgy to really do justice to this story. I was dead wrong about that. This film is packed with substance, and unflinchingly unsentimental. The inclusion of deft comedy is a release valve used to break up the grim proceedings about a wronged mother out for justice.
3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).
Nearly a year has passed since Mildred Hayes’ teen daughter was murdered, with no results. Fed up, she rents three old billboards and puts up a message taking the local police to task. While the chief of police is sympathetic to her case, the rest of the force starts a feud with Mildred. Bad blood and small town secrets are brought to light in an increasingly violent clash of wills between an angry mother and a dysfunctional police department.
McDonagh’s story is all about how tragedy and bad decisions go hand in glove, and wind up feeding each other. An abusive marriage puts Mildred on edge. She lashes out at her daughter, whose retaliation may have led to her being attacked. The tragedy of the murder drives Mildred to burn her bridges and antagonize the police. A wild cannon deputy responds to this criticism by escalating bouts of intimidation and violence. This all keeps churning around and around until the main characters are all at a place where tragedy is quickly becoming a disaster. By the time it comes to a head it feels inevitable, but McDonagh shows how people operating out of anger or resentment have been steadily adding powder to the keg.
3 Billboards is a personality driven film, and it succeeds due to an excellent cast and well written characters. This film earns each of its many Oscar nominations for leading and supporting roles. Woody Harrelson has been excellent this year, and his Chief Willoughby wind up being the emotional center of the film. Likewise, Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) has been very good, here playing the silently suffering son of Mildred Hayes. Sam Rockwell tames what could have been an over the top role as deputy Dixon. Peter Dinklage takes a minor role and shows enormous heart. The crowning achievement to it all is Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes.
McDormand plays a steely and embittered mother who feels she has nothing left to lose. She’s one tough customer in the hands of the veteran actress. McDormand doesn’t flinch from being nasty and unlikable, every bit as implacable as Mildred. It’s a standout performance among many great ones, and it works because the script strips all of the sentimentality from the drama. This premise could have devolved into a Lifetime movie or a farcical comedy, but chooses instead to play it brutally straight. While there are some funny moments, this is no Coen brothers dark comedy like Fargo (where McDormand ably proved she can keep a straight face during absurd events.)
On the surface level of the drama, we have desperate and angry people doing rather despicable things all film long. What really impressed me was that McDonagh and his cast don’t flinch away from this situation. None of the comedy is used to disarm the fact that these folks are being rotten to each other. None of the excellent performances are used as special pleading to make you feel that the awfulness is anything less than awful. Despite all of this (or perhaps because it is so sincere about not sugar coating anything) you wind up feeling empathy for the characters. You won’t come to condone much of what happens, but you can viscerally feel where these folks are coming from and why the situation is in the state we find it in.
Maybe its the state of the world we live in, but I’ve found 2017 to be a year rich in devastatingly honest movies. Good Time impressed me with its portrayal of how poverty can infect every decision its characters make, often to disastrous effect. 3 Billboards presents a story where anger, resentment, and the unfairness of life lead to antisocial actions. Despite a lack of resolution to the drama, which again reinforces the refusal of this project to indulge any sentimentality, 3 Billboards had me riveted for the entire run time. In contrast to The Shape of Water, at no point could I even begin to guess where this narrative was taking me. Thanks to a solid script and great acting, I was satisfied just being along for the ride.