Getting one’s arms around this powerful yet sprawling movie might prove as difficult as grasping its intriguing yet unwieldy title. Every effort, however, should be made to catch Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, if for no other reason than its towering performance by Frances McDormand and the film’s uncompromising tone that is so uncannily of-the-moment that it pierces society’s gauzy moral fabric. Three Billboards’ range spans between anguish and comedy in ways that can seem both dizzyingly daring and narratively pat, but never is the film dull or unthinking.
As the camera glides over a winding two-lane road, the film’s opening scene zeroes in on Mildred Hayes (McDormand), with furrowed brow and chewing furiously on a fingernail while driving past three ramshackle billboards, and we can see the glimmer of an idea taking form in her mind. Mildred is the heartbroken mother of a teenage girl whose rape and murder months earlier has yet to be solved. In her grief, she decides on a plan to shame the small-town police chief (Woody Harrelson) into action. Her plan upsets the community; disturbs her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who has tried to remain comfortably numb in the wake of his sister’s death; and embarrasses her ex-husband (John Hawkes), who, annoyingly, has taken up with a 19-year-old know-nothing (Samara Weaving). Dressed perpetually in blue coveralls and bearing a stern facial expression, Mildred wears her anguish like a protective armor plate. She is fearsome and gives no quarter to anyone offering sympathy — not the police chief who has late-stage cancer, nor the priest who comes offering compassion. To her way of thinking, all who have not participated in solving her daughter’s murder are culpable for the crime. McDormand embodies a tenacious but flawed character who does not fear unlikability, and in doing so, creates one of the most memorable personages in her incomparable career (one that includes Fargo’s Marge Gunderson and the titular Olive Kitteridge).
In his third feature film, acclaimed stage director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) exercises his penchant for combining comedy, crime, and coarse language and ideas. Despite Mildred’s palpable sorrow, Three Billboards takes delight in puncturing shibboleths and expectations. The film also features a couple of priceless doofuses who milk comedy from every second onscreen: in particular, Sam Rockwell’s bigoted patrolman Jason Dixon, who’s a mama’s boy and his own worst enemy, and the new girlfriend of Mildred’s ex, who confuses things like polo and polio. A comparison of the matriarchal forces played by McDormand and Dixon’s frightful mother (Sandy Martin) might also prove illuminating in this first film for which McDonagh has written leading roles for female characters.
However commanding and absorbing Three Billboards may be, the film is diminished by its neatness and unconvincing resolutions to the many dilemmas it puts into play. There’s a redemptive ending for the bigot, a predictable romantic pairing between the film’s two black characters, and an uneasy balance between pathos and comedy. (One particular sore point that continues to stick with me is why a figurine thrown in anger by a suspected rapist isn’t examined for fingerprints.) The story’s wealth of characters manages to keep things interesting but also draw attention away from the film’s central pursuits. Nevertheless, Three Billboards is a momentous achievement, presenting us with a remarkable female character and topical plot about the conspiracy of silence that pervades our culture. Those who do not participate with this film risk, as Mildred might say, culpability in our greater sins.