SDFF Review: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Is A Twisted And Touching Delight
Films do not need to provide easy answers to every question they bring up. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (a title that will never roll off the tongue) is a movie analyzing the plights of multiple characters and has no desire to let any of them off easy. In fact, the film practically revels in contradicting itself. Here’s a story that presents angry characters dealing with a dilemma, but also takes time to put their worldviews into perspective. In a year where Americans on all sides seem to have bitter reactions to events taking place, an Irish filmmaker has come along to make a dark comedy set in the South that manages to inject brilliant dialogue and a sense of empathy into the situation to remedy things in his own way.
That Irish filmmaker is Martin McDonagh, a well-regarded playwright who has already built cinematic cred with his equally dark comedies In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. His third film is rooted in similar thematic territory, and his work behind the camera has only improved. The story features Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a mother who is taking action against the local police, as there has been no development on finding those responsible for the rape and murder of her daughter. She uses three billboards to send a message, causing a stir amongst the people in her town as a result.
Three Billboards works as an ensemble film, but it feels somewhat segmented into three parts, as perspectives shift around. McDormand is the film’s anchor, but her story gets the most focus in the early parts of the film, and she’s doing some career-best work. Woody Harrelson plays Sheriff Bill Willoughby, a respected man who does not take to the billboards lightly but is also understandably sympathetic towards Mildred. His presence is given the most focus during the middle of the film and what we learn about him makes it difficult to side with Mildred completely. Finally, Sam Rockwell (fantastic as always, but perhaps at his best here), plays the angry and naïve Officer Jason Dixon.
To focus on Dixon, his character has the largest arc in the film. We see things mainly through his eyes during the final portion of the film, and it is impressive to see the character go from a violent man with racist inclinations to someone desperate to turn things around. As mentioned previously, you can see a lot of anger coming out of a film like this and it is somewhat surprising that it stems from an act of protest, not unlike activities in current times. There is no doubt some social satire present here, and while a lesser film wouldn’t give much thought to Mildred’s opponents, Three Billboards manages to make the local police and others compelling characters in their own right.
Given the subject matter, it’s also a good time to mention how funny this movie is. The characters are heightened and that means hearing some sharp and cyclical dialogue that happens to be laced with foul language. McDonagh places a lot of shock humor into this film but not in a way that doesn’t apply to the narrative. Hearing the level of vulgarity or horrible things said (and done) to characters allows the film a chance to make the audience smile and wince at the same time. That said, there are plenty of emotional moments to counter the antics of these folk.
Keep in mind the billboards were created in this film to stir up feelings. It’s that aspect that allows McDorman, Harrelson and Rockwell to wrestle with the conceptual nature of their characters, as well as bring out good work from the supporting cast. Most notably, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges and Caleb Landry Jones all have defining aspects about them but are moved in different ways in various instances. Even as we laugh during certain awkward moments, there is tenderness the sneaks up in this film, as well as an understanding that people can be awful, but somehow still say the right thing.
I mentioned McDonagh’s increasing skill as a filmmaker and it shows here. For an accomplished playwright, he has crafted an excellent film that never swings for the fences, even when handling its most outlandish moments. Cinematographer Ben Davis has worked on some enormous Marvel movies but finds a proper and steady hand for the work required in this film. While the screenplay has a level of edge that may call to mind other films tackling dark comedy with propulsive movement, Three Billboards is concentrated on the drama unfolding, with funny lines that come naturally. Carter Burwell’s excellent score helps with this, as the film’s tone never feels off.
A key to Three Billboards’ success has to be the good it manages to fine in a terrible situation and how complicate that still is. Regardless of characters who perish or the results Mildred gets from putting up her billboards, this is a film that is sometimes heartbreaking, but finds reason in the events that take place. It’s hard for things not to get messy in a film that’s structured around a mother’s grief and anger. However, we still see genuine qualities come from people who start the film on differing sides, good and bad. For Three Billboards to accomplish that so effectively is impressive. To have the film still leave you intrigued by the journey ahead of these characters makes it something more.