Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Within the first twenty minutes of Three Billboards, Martin McDonagh's wonderfully dark and humorous screenplay had attacked the male population, the police, the media, racists, homophobes, middle America, oh, and the Catholic church - sounds about right for a McDonagh film. Three Billboards pack all the punches (quite literally), as its timely screenplay finds the perfect tone and opportunity to discuss a crumbling nation filled with hatred and a love of violence.
Following the brutal death of her teenage daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three abandoned billboards (guess where) outside the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. The billboards spell out a simple message - Raped while dying. And still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby? - that stirs up big trouble. As Mildred's billboards begin to draw attention around town and in the news, the community begins to expose its dark secrets. Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) takes the billboards in stride, preoccupied with his own impending death, but his devoted, unabashedly racist, uncontrollable, and, quite frankly, moronic deputy, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), starts on a self-proclaimed warpath to bring Mildred Hayes, her billboards, and anyone associated with her crumbling down.
McDonagh's characters aren't likable (the most likable being the helplessly doomed Willoughby), but that's what makes the film less of a work of fiction and more of a mirror reflecting back on society. The brazenness and brashness of these characters capture the unrelenting social and moral divide not only in America but across the world. Mildred's fury and unrelenting revenge finally reflect a woman in the film that isn't weakened or victimized, but rather unashamedly strong and dominating. Although at times Dixon's blatant racism, uncontrollable anger, and ranging alcoholism may seem extreme, it is actually a pretty decent representation of the personalities suffocating middle America. McDonagh's film may be taken as a personal attack on American society (and it should be), but what it succeeds best at is depicting an unimaginably accurate and articulate picture of a deteriorating society that is perpetuating in loathing and violence - from both parties. The only language these people speak is hate, and that's a frightening picture of civilization.
There's nothing glitzy or glamorous about McDonagh's directing. It's simple and to the point, allowing his powerful screenplay to do the talking. But his brilliance as a director shines through his actors. McDormand is a tour de force as the tough, yet grieving, Mildred. She's astonishing as a cold and powerful woman unafraid to play rough with the big boys, but its the flashes of insecurity and fear, the moments that last a heartbeat, that shows McDormand's true capacity as an actor. McDormand's Mildred becomes an every(wo)man for the legions of women watching this film; she embodies the female spirit, that she refused to get beaten down in a male-dominated world. Sam Rockwell gives a performance far worth of a supporting actor credit. Although I find his characters minimal attempt at redemption, despite the horrific acts he committed, to be ludicrous, Rockwell does give a brazened performance that should make anyone think retrospectively. Finally, Woody Harrelson's Willoughby appears to be the only sane person in all of Ebbing, Missouri, but his quiet acceptance with death and his will to make things right is an absolute treat from Harrelson - a wonderfully nuanced performance that plays to his strengths but also shows a grand range.
Many have criticized Three Billboards for its hokey interpretation of the mid-west and McDonagh's outsider perspective. Wesley Morrison wrote in The New York Times that, "there’s no reckoning with anything, no introspection, just escalating mayhem." Yet, I find that to be the point of the drama - there is no reckoning of the violence that terrorizes American society, there is no introspection of the injustices that plague women, blacks, minorities in America. It's just escalating mayhem from the bottom, up. And perhaps it took an outsider for us to see that.