Today, you don’t have to look far to find something to be angry about. There will always be injustice in the world, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling outraged. Sometimes you just want to release that anger at everyone and everything, no matter the consequences. Martin McDonagh‘s third feature film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is the cinematic equivalent of this blind fury at our world’s many injustices, exploring its lasting effects with a real wit and heart only made possible by its competent writing and direction. Driven by its emotionally charged performances, Three Billboards is a film that will leave you laughing and utterly devastated within the same scene, and is quite possibly my favorite film of the year.
The dark comedy-drama follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), mother of a teenage girl who was found raped and murdered roughly a year prior in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. Outraged that her town’s local police department has failed to conjure up a single suspect, Mildred rents out three billboards to display provocative messages to the police. Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) are predictably offended by Mildred’s accusatory attitude, and the film depicts the increasingly strained confrontation between both parties.
With his previous two films, In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), director Martin McDonagh made a name for himself through his peculiar tonal balance between witty comedy and oppressively bleak subject matter. Whereas most other films in the black comedy genre tend to largely shrug off the repercussions of their grim material, McDonagh refuses to turn away, choosing instead to stare long and hard into the black void. This puts his films at an odd crossroad; on one hand, they’re exceptionally funny, but on the other they’re also quite depressing. By only the grace of McDonagh’s brilliant writing, his films miraculously manage to excel at both comedy and tragedy without ever fully committing to either. In a way, the comedy actually intensifies the tragedy, pushing it to new emotional lows that wouldn’t normally be achievable by pure dedication to a somber tone. By expecting something funny we’re letting our guard down, and McDonagh slaps us in the face whenever we start to feel comfortable.
One particular scene in the film that comes to mind regarding this odd balance is a flashback that occurs near the beginning of the film. Mildred remembers eating breakfast with her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and her now late daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). They’re having a petty argument about how Angela wants the car and Mildred makes a point about not letting her borrow it. Angela, exaggerating her dilemma, gripes to her mother that she hopes she gets raped on her way walking. Till this point, the conversation has been amusing, but now we’re dead silent, gravely knowing the tragedy that awaits the girl. To drive the point home, the film cuts painfully back to the present right after Mildred calls back to Angela, saying she hopes she gets raped too. It’s a startlingly upsetting scene, and not something any other comedy would dare attempt, but since McDonagh never commits to a comedy, it’s contextually appropriate as the uncomfortable outburst it is.
None of this flipping back and forth between comedy and tragedy would work without the full support of a veteran cast, and for the most part, everyone delivers. Frances McDormand will undoubtedly receive the most vocal praise for her nuanced portrayal of Mildred, and deservedly so. McDormand carries herself with a grim and intense gravitas, but more importantly she conveys another side to her character, one that is loving and maternal so as to balance out her louder mannerisms. In one scene, Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby is interrogating Mildred about a certain run-in she had with a dentist. The two argue loudly until Willoughby sporadically spits up blood. The frustration on both actors’ faces evaporates instantly and Mildred comforts Willoughby like a caring mother. The tone change is quite shocking, jolting the scene from an amusing skirmish to a heartbreaking consolation, and both Harrelson and McDormand deliver it with a devoted emotional reverence.
Frances McDormand as Mildred isn’t the only performance worthy of praise though. Sam Rockwell as the violent and alcoholic racist Dixon absolutely steals the show in his every scene. From his first appearance, we are introduced to him as an amusingly dumb-witted cop, but his character evolves immensely from that initial impression. In just under two hours, we go from laughing at him to loathing him to even pitying him, and Rockwell carries this dramatic character arc without skipping a beat. In one particularly gut-wrenching scene, a handheld camera follows Dixon on a furious rampage after he is informed of a tragedy. He glides across a street in a drunken gait, smashing in the front door of a building with his police baton. Walking up some stairs, he beats a young man within an inch of his life before throwing him out a window, all the while a quiet folk song (‘His Master’s Voice’) hums peacefully in the background. Rockwell’s aloof brutality captured in such a nauseating close-up against the calm music makes the scene an unforgettably stomach-churning moment and a quietly intense peak of the film.
What’s even more incredible about that scene is how McDonagh is able to write Rockwell’s character out of such a detestable position, granting him a satisfying redemptive arc without exploiting sentimentality, in a way that’s scaled appropriately to the film’s length. I won’t spoil any more of the writing than that, because it really is worth seeing for yourself how dramatic of a shift in opinion you’ll have on his character. McDonagh’s strong writing extends to nearly every character, from Chief Willoughby to Mildred to even Peter Dinklage‘s brief role, and they are all written with surprising depth. With the rare exception of one character played by Samara Weaving, they all feel like real people, complete with their own strengths and flaws, making their conflicts with one another deeply convincing and often painfully tragic.
Themes of anger, revenge, and love are the focal points of the script, elevating the film from a simple entertaining drama to a deeply satisfying exploration of how we treat each other. This year, these ideas have never been more pertinent. Everyone in the film has hate and anger built up inside them and lashes out at their friends and neighbors, often with dire repercussions. Mildred hates the police for not doing enough to solve her daughter’s unjust murder. Dixon is a bigot, hating minorities and anyone different or defiant enough to disrespect his authority. Willoughby is frustrated with Mildred for what he perceives as an unwarranted attack on the police department. Mildred’s son Robbie is angry at his mother for dragging his reputation at school through the mud by putting up the billboards. The list goes on and on. With each misanthropic act, each and every one of these characters come to realize that their hate leads them nowhere. As Willoughby himself writes in a letter to Dixon, love is the only way to get better.
Thankfully, all this hate does end and with heartwarming results. The film’s most beautiful and optimistic moments occur in its handful of small reconciliations between characters who have previously despised each other. In one scene, Caleb Landry Jones’s character forgives Rockwell’s for having majorly wronged him, despite having no reason or expectation to do so. You can see the pained rage in his teared eyes, but rather than giving in to his primal urges, he resists and chooses to love his aggressor. It’s a simple, but strikingly moving scene.
The grand finale of these reconciliations occurs in the film’s ending, as Mildred and Dixon find themselves traveling together for vengeance. As they travel, they begin to doubt themselves, asking each other whether revenge is something they really want to do anymore. Mildred ends the conversation, saying “I guess we’ll just have to decide when we get there”. For the film to wind up here after 2 hours of anger and escalating aggression, with the two most polarly opposite characters traveling together for no other reason but each other’s company, is a beautifully hopeful conclusion. If these two characters can overcome such stark differences, why can’t the rest us as well?
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri establishes itself as a film about anger and seemingly endless hostility, and ends as one about forgiveness and love. As the year comes to a close, we can only plead that our world will begin to echo these concluding themes as well. The film’s setting of a small town only further serves as a microcosm for America at large, begging each and every one of us to consider our own prejudices and biases. The movie is a breathtaking achievement in resonant writing, powerful performances, and topical messages, and is without a doubt one of the strongest films this year.