This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Martin McDonagh
Genre: Dark Comedy, Drama
A teenage girl, Angela Hayes, has been kidnapped, raped, and burned alive, and after months without any new leads, the local police have given up. But for her mother Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand), the search is far from over. After buying up three billboards on a forgotten road in Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred calls out the police’s ineptitude. In an unfortunately one-sided fight between Mildred vs. Ebbing, Missouri, Ebbing never stood a chance . . .
Despite the unapologetically dark premise, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI delicately tiptoes the line between genre conventions, careful not to define itself by its darker elements with surprising humor and wit. For many of the characters in the film, an intelligent moral ambiguity provides a depth and maturity that is often lost in other films. Here, people are angry, sad, or lost, but almost never evil. THREE BILLBOARDS is a film that frequently reminds the audience that the characters on screen are people with complex lives and desires. In a world where nobody simply earns a happy ending, idealism and convention have no home. Instead, with an unstoppable iron will to find her daughter’s killer, Francis McDormand sheds FARGO’s “Minnesota nice” for “Missouri fury,” while delivering a masterful and fiercely independent performance that is surely among the year’s best.
“Listen Mildred, you can’t just keep pushing kids off of the jungle gym, even if your daughter IS dead.” – Chief Willoughby (PTA President).
Director Martin McDonagh has successfully played with dark humor in earlier films, IN BRUGES and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, in particular. THREE BILLBOARDS nails that balance and evokes laughter under the strangest circumstances, including a notably crass sequence that takes place over a family breakfast. It also helps that McDonagh populates the screen with familiar and talented actors like Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Peter Dinklage. In the middle of this all-star cast, McDonagh wisely chooses to focus on Mildred’s drive, letting McDormand ground and propel the film forward through sheer willpower. The resulting anarchy is unbelievably attractive, and the audience has no choice but to accompany Mildred on her quest for vengeance. After all, a teenage girl’s justice is at stake.
With Mildred’s search for her daughter’s killer at its heart, THREE BILLBOARDS is best defined as a quasi neo-western. Instead of the towering, rocky plateaus of Monument Valley, among verdant mountains the three billboards stand as their own symbol of lawlessness. Like FARGO, most of the characters surrounding Mildred are simple people with simple desires, but Mildred is entirely aware, operating on a whole different level, with a dangerous disregard for societal conventions. Possessing John Wayne’s silent strength and confidence but with a fouler mouth, she sets forth her fury on the sleepy town of Ebbing, leaving destruction in her wake. Violence and explosions occasionally rock Ebbing’s main street while the constant stink of injustice continues to hang over the town. The film is clever in how it slowly widens the scope of the world as Mildred confidently takes center stage, but even as the film’s clear protagonist, Mildred’s actions have important consequences and we should not be so quick to take sides.
“MFW I hear that a vengeful mother bought up three billboards on the outside of town and called me out for failing to find her daughter’s rapist.”
Ironically, in the hopes of melding the pieces of herself broken by her daughter’s death, Mildred’s vengeful path becomes increasingly destructive. Like any path of revenge, the hope is that it will end in closure. But as usual, Mildred’s rage seeps into her son’s (Lucas Hedges) life, and Mildred’s abusive husband (John Hawkes) has run off with a 19-year-old (Samara Weaving). Her son doesn’t need a warrior, he needs a mother. The many complicated pieces of the film are so skillfully interwoven that, just like Mildred, they aren’t conventional but absolutely work. For the rest of the characters’ jagged edges, McDonagh’s skillful direction softens them with delicacy and compassion.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI is of those films that invites the audience to applaud at the movies and plants them in their seats during the credits. It’s smart, well-produced, well-acted, well-written, and I expect that it will stay with many people long after they leave their seats. This is a must-see when it comes out on wide release at the start of next year. For those of you in Los Angeles, it’s in arthouse theaters and various festivals, so go see it! Most importantly, the film’s message of understanding rings truer than ever throughout our divided world, where through all of the film’s chaos and violence, it is ultimately only through mutual human decency that the film’s characters are able to heal.