Anger and desperation can make a person do the unthinkable, and the spectacle that results from such emotions quite often becomes the subjects of films. The energy and adrenaline are usually the secondary components. It's easy for screenwriters and directors to capitalize on the act of someone beating up another person in a fit of rage rather than the take a look at the butting emotions that manifest inside a person that, in turn, motivate them to carry out potentially heinous action. With that in mind, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri dares go where few filmmakers even bother.
The plot: Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a divorced mother still overwhelmed with grief and guilt over the rape and murder of her teenage daughter Angela seven months ago. Living in the titular town, she's greeted by the same townfolk every day and the same lackadaisical, racist police department that offer only empty condolences and no meaningful answers regarding the death of her daughter. In a move to keep the story in the public sphere, Mildred rents three gigantic billboards on a mostly deserted road outside of Ebbing, Missouri. Each billboard bears a simple statement, that, when read in sequence, question Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) on the lack of developments.
As anyone can predict, the town and Willoughby are greatly upset by these "unfair" billboards. In an early conversation with Mildred on a swingset near the billboards, Willoughby tells her of the extensive steps that have been taken to track down Angela's killer that prompted no leads. Mildred quickly responds with what she would do: build a website database, take blood-samples from every man in the country, store the DNA information online, and use it to find her daughter's killer and assure that any killer would be caught. "That's a violation of Civil Rights laws," Willoughby tells her.
Deep down, Mildred knows this and knows her aforementioned "plan" to nab her daughter's killer is a foolish one; she's not even sure what the billboards will do, if anything. She's desperate at this point, motivated by the energy brought on by boiling anger and no answers. The only way she knows how to carry out any plan is with her own wits and vulgar sensibilities, and these are just some of the things that initially irritate Willoughby as well as Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an incompetent boozehound sheriff working around the clock at reading comics. With their intense opposition, as well as everything but kind sentiment from her ex-husband (John Hawkes) and her depressed son (Lucas Hedges), Mildred persists the way she knows best - unrelentingly.
Writer/director Martin McDonagh has assembled a few eclectic, darkly comic ensembles in his day. From In Bruges to the uneven but entertaining Seven Psychopaths, his talent resides in recruiting a familiar cast of characters (Harrelson, Rockwell, Abbie Cornish - also in this film) and planting them into a hectic narrative that moves as fast as they do. Up until this film, his talent largely rested in capitalizing off of the strength of moments, brought on by his innate ability to bring out the best in his actors. At last, his talents culminate in Three Billboards to make a rousing, consistently immersive comedy-drama crossed with crime and sociopolitical elements that drive it all home.
Interwoven so masterfully into a narrative that shows the legacy contemptible murderers and rapists leave on the families of their victims are themes of institutionalized racism. "If you got rid of every cop with slightly racist tendencies," Willoughby tells Mildred, "you'd have three cops left and they'd hate gays." In a televised interview, Mildred states her beliefs that the Ebbing Police Department is too busy "torturing black folk" to solve an actual crime; her sentiments echo a large part of America's thoughts about police officers as more unlawful and unpunished shootings find extensive coverage on the evening news. McDonagh's previous pictures didn't touch on these external elements, partially because their premises didn't explicitly call for it and another part, I feel, is because McDonagh couldn't find a way to adequately employ any dense subtext. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri shows a laudable amount of growth and development for his work, as he's finally found a way to mesh his coarse style with elements that will stay with audiences beyond cheeky shootouts and lengthy third-acts.
Ebbing, Missouri doesn't exist. The film was shot in North Carolina, and streets, downtown districts, and places of modest commerce were decorated by extensive production design to make it look like any small-town. Though its characters speak with that distinctly southern drawl, Ebbing could theoretically be any town that's small enough to the point where you could say something like "the lady with the funny eye," as Dickson says in one scene, in reference to a complaint that's been filed, and everyone within earshot would immediately know to whom you're referring. McDonagh does a splendid job of weaving his camera in and out of the storefronts and grassy locales that make up Ebbing, enough to the point where we occasionally run into Mildred's ex, a spunky dwarf (Peter Dinklage), and the doof who rented Mildred the billboards who was simply doing his job (Caleb Landry Jones). In efforts to capture that kind of angry, land-locked energy, McDonagh and his talented production designers have made a film with a great deal of small-town energy.
Even with McDonagh's terrific writing, his film wouldn't be what it is without its essential ensemble of magnificent performances. Unmissable in the film is Frances McDormand, a powerhouse performer if there ever was one. McDormand can be the only soul on-screen and still find ways to make a scene dynamic and unsettling to the point when a latter one of her clenching the neck of a bottle of Chardonnay and pacing towards her ex-husband and his girlfriend is as effective of a moment as one in any recent horror film. She's perfect as an acid-tongued, guilt-stricken mother whose move to rent billboards as a plea to the local police chief to solve her daughter's murder is the last ounce of energy she has to make things somewhat right.
McDonagh continues to bring out the best in his right-hand-man Harrelson, as well as Hedges and Jones, as sparingly as the youthful actors are used, but Sam Rockwell shocked me the most. A man who has crafted a comfortable facet for himself as being the career douchebag, Rockwell and his role come into a late and surprising metamorphosis that not only renders him a vital character, but also one that is textured. McDonagh's present switch is also a sign of his personal growth as a director, and Rockwell plays similar beats to Ben Foster's troubled Texan in Hell or High Water.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri deserves all the praise, hype, and smoke it's been getting and will continue to get as it presumably marches itself to some deserved Oscar nominations in the most-discussed categories. It's an effective flurry of emotions that once again, like Wind River this year, shows the impact one — just one — death can have on a plethora of people, and how the energy brought on by some of humanity's most powerful emotions can lead to something so audacious. It's a gut-punch of a film, but not without its own disarmingly funny sense of humor to it that'll make up for however Wind River or Hell or High Water managed to ruin your night without giving you just a little to laugh about.