The torture of loving and losing someone mirrors the feeling of grief and anger in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Yet, this mirroring sense of emotion isn’t just about the next phase of mourning – vengeance- but more on dwelling on the ugly truth of the matter: the fire and thirst for justice. The third film written and directed by British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh maybe his most complex one yet as he delves into the cruel happenings of one’s true pain.
Frances McDormand portrays Mildred Hayes, a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered seven months prior to the film’s plot. Within that long time, the police had made no progress in tracking down the killer; she believes the police are “too busy going round torturing black folks” to solve the crime. Her opinion on the latter is complicated in an age where we continue to strengthen our need for equality. The impact of constantly waiting for news emotionally transformed Hayes into a hard-as-nails woman on the path to fight for the truth. Becoming a force to be reckoned with, she pays local advertiser Red (Caleb Landry Jones) to have messages projected onto billboards to taunt police – almost as a notice to say she is ready to start an uproar in the small town of Ebbing. Her messages – illuminated in red – are hard to miss: “Raped while dying”, “Still no arrests” and finally, she sets her aim on one target, “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
As the film slowly progresses we initially think the narrative focuses on one woman’s grief and her agenda to take down the white cops on a racist agenda. That is not the case at all. In fact, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) isn’t the main man accountable for the current state of events. The blame is on everyone: Willoughby’s fellow officers, her abusive ex-husband, local news stations and of course, Mildred – who isn’t one bit afraid to be the bully herself.
McDonagh’s screenplay is full of riches but slightly falls in places due to its violent tones. While it is perceived that the chief is the biggest bigot in the small town, he’s not. The person in question is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the officer who lives with his mum and gets a thrill by hurting others. That aspect takes away something fundamental about the story: the wishful thinking that Mildred could find some peace following Angela’s death, instead of being lead to a place full of brutality.
McDormand provides a stellar performance in Three Billboards and reminds us of the Oscar-winning one she gave in Fargo in 1996. Her portrayal doesn’t just highlight the sharpness of the mother but the vulnerability of her too. Mildred isn’t plotting revenge, she is on the hunt to find an explanation to an event that has tragically altered her life.
Even when her character becomes a tad intense, there will be a sudden occurrence of humour that makes you warm to the idea that Mildred isn’t as tough as she looks. The comedic aspect is natural. Driving past her billboards she will curse the news reporter who is on hand to report anything that is scandalous, but the direction and character development allow us to believe that the comedy is embedded into her.
Harrelson and Rockwell also give excellent performances. The chief has a somewhat tender heart in comparison to Dixon who is the office clown on a warpath. But later on, we see the latter grow an unexpected conscience that makes the film seem oddly fulfilling.
Through the protagonist’s growth, we begin to realise that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t a film solely focusing on suffering, the theme is much wider. McDonagh highlights the very worst in human behaviour. The darkness of anger is analysed through actions that are not necessarily politically correct. And while there is a slight hope that the characters are beginning to recognise the art of forgiveness, it would have benefited to have explored the learning aspect more in order to round the narrative up tightly. McDonagh’s work indicates what a great filmmaker he is. He manages to provide horror, shock and humour into one, making Three Billboards the perfect frontrunner this awards season.
Check out our interview with McDonagh at London Film Festival last November: