There is a scene midway through Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri where it’s impossible to know exactly what is going to happen. Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes stands alone in a restaurant with a wine bottle in her hand. She’s been insulted, humiliated, and proven to be a pretty awful human being… but she’s still better than her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), who has mocked her anger for the umpteenth time before sitting back down next to his new girlfriend (Samara Weaving). While Mildred’s rebound has been nothing short of grief over the violent loss of their shared daughter, Charlie has very quickly moved on to this Penelope girl, a friendly 19-year-old so bubbly it hurts.
Thus with McDormand’s hand coiling around the bottle like a serpent ready to bear venom, Mildred saunters to the hubby’s table. Is this sequence going to be violent or emotional, hilarious or bleakly despairing? No audience can know for sure. Such is the strange alchemy of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards, a layered work that can at once be darkly amusing while still maintaining an unrelenting air of tragedy. To just witness how its characters will connect, crash, or upend one another becomes a densely rewarding mystery unto itself.
Like McDonagh’s previous movies, Three Billboards blurs the line between comedy and calamity, suggesting that there is no real difference, especially in a landscape populated with Midwestern sad sacks ready to explode. It’s the filmmaker’s most challenging and sweeping film to date, and it’s also capable of bringing tears to the eye, whether via laughter or whatever that other feeling is that comes when the violence, four-letter expletives, and even ominous wine bottles are put away.
Presented in the context of a moldered Americana, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about what the title dryly advertises. During the film’s opening sequences, Mildred makes the rash decision to rent three decrepit billboards outside of her working class small town. A proprietor of a beige Missourian gift shop herself, this mother of two has had a rough go of it since her teenage daughter was raped and murdered almost a year ago, and the culprit has still not been brought to justice.
So Mildred rents the billboards and skirts the line of legal defamation by demanding why the local sheriff’s department, and specifically Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), has been unable to offer Mildred closure? The fact that it’s an open secret in the town that popular Willoughby has cancer and will be dead in a few months himself doesn’t affect Mildred’s anger, nor will he garner the slightest sympathy from her. But while the sheriff might be a diplomat in his sudden PR battle of wills with the foulmouthed and aggrieved mother, his hotheaded and dimwitted deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is already on thin ice for torturing an African American suspect, is less concerned about giving Mildred the benefit of the doubt.
As the billboards become the talk of the town, their impact will hit everyone. And more impressive still, almost all of these locals will ultimately play a poignant or uproarious role in this slow motion car wreck, be it Red (Caleb Landry Jones), the sketchy young man who sells advertisement space, the young mother and wife of a doomed sheriff (Abbie Cornish), or even the short-statured car dealer (Peter Dinklage), who has a soft spot for Mildred’s unending glower. None shall escape the reckoning that is to come.
As the latest film from the writer-director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, there is a familiar sense of misanthropy and forlorn sorrow throughout this picture, which often can be experienced with an equal measure of incredulity. For despite being so glum, Three Billboards is often bitingly funny. And much of that humor is derived from McDormand giving a titanic performance.
All backwoods impropriety and country bluntness, it is conceivable that Mildred could have fallen into the realm of white trash clichés without as precise a hand as McDormand’s. Seething steely determination and personified rage, the film’s protagonist is quicker to drop f-bombs and deeply personal attacks than to shed award-friendly tears, but McDormand makes it all ring true with a defiant hilarity. She is a character who cares not a good goddamn about local celebrity, even as she enters into a publicity blitzkrieg against the local police force. And, eventually, that really will include actual fire bombing too.
It’s a tremendous turn that’s buoyed by McDonagh continuing to use profanity and wrathful characterization to fill his pages and screen like how a Pointillist might use a whole lot of dots. And it is with great color that the large list of supporting characters react to the billboard-induced apocalypse, including an ever affable Harrelson who gets to lean into his softer movie star persona. But the real standout is Rockwell as Dixon, a police officer who audiences have every reason to despise over the course of the picture, and very well may by the end of it.
Yet for all of his slow-witted embodiment of white and authoritative entitlement, Dixon is a lot like Mildred and all the other anti-heroes that fill McDonagh’s movies: he’s a blunderer who is trying to muddle through and find a noble reason for being in this senseless world. As his and Mildred’s dual stories converge to grim results, the film finds a sentimentality that elevates the picture to beyond mere fury or gallows humor.
As a snapshot of middle American impotency on an epic scale, it’s a bizarre and intimate vision conjured here, one that readily ignores Charlie’s warning to Mildred: anger only begets anger. It’s bumper sticker wisdom that neither party subscribes to, however it is also a kind of prophecy for the red-faced glory to come.