Feeling almost like the preamble to a classic Western, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is one of the darkest comedies in recent memory, with Frances McDormand on fire as a pissed off anti-hero, fed up with law enforcement and hell-bent on finding and punishing the people who murdered her daughter.
McDormand puts in a very impressive turn as Mildred Hayes, our strong, foul-mouthed protagonist. While there may be better films that were released in late 2017/early 2018, you would be hard-pressed to find a better performance among them. McDormand’s performance, and McDonagh’s screenplay for that matter, gleefully subverts the standard “mother” archetype regularly seen in film.
Mildred is the mother of a teenage girl who has been raped and murdered in horrific fashion the year prior, and she is fed up with the lack of results the investigation has provided. Taking the narrative into her own hands, she rents three billboards in order to publicly question the effectiveness of the police and, in particular, Chief of Police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). With a devil-may-care attitude for the divisiveness the billboards are causing in town, Mildred embarks on a one-woman war against Ebbing’s law enforcement in the hopes that it will push them to bring her daughter’s killer to justice.
What McDonough has done so well in previous films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths is blend jarring tones that conflict the audience. Throughout his films you are laughing openly when you feel like you shouldn’t be, and it’s this conflicting feeling that is carried throughout Three Billboards. Take, for example, a scene with Mildred kicking a bunch of high schoolers in the crotch after they vandalise her car. Hilarious as it may be, McDonough is testing the audience as to where their sympathies lie as a new layer is peeled back on our hard-nosed protagonist. These moments of shifting perceptions are not just singular to Mildred, they’re on display right from the beginning, from when you discover why she puts the billboards up, to Chief Willoughby and your views on his attempts to solve the crime, to the actions of problematic officer Dixon (a great Sam Rockwell). The film’s wonderful cast – including Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish and Lucas Hedges – fill out the rest of the character line up, nearly all of who will consistently challenge your empathy.
Alas, this juxtaposition and evolution of character doesn’t quite work in Three Billboards as it has in McDonough’s previous works. As we are introduced to highly questionable character elements, and then asked to ignore them, it feels as though there is a glaring omission within the film that is hard look past. Despite the film’s comedic tone and incredibly strong female protagonist, the film is awfully casual about race and violent acts, especially from police officers; to the point where Rockwell’s character is almost driven home as a racist cop who enjoys brutalising “persons of colour” (as he refers to them in the film), only to have this aspect of his backstory rarely revisited after the second act. Dixon may very well have the greatest story arc and character development within the film, and it’s just left hanging in the air.
It’s a tough one, because when it comes down to it, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is indeed a strong film that’s very well made. An isolated town with unspeakable horrors in its past provides McDonough with the right canvas for his skills: taking tones and themes that seem like two polar opposites and blending together. Unfortunately, the narrative itself is let down by a balancing act within characters that doesn’t quite work and a final act that holds a few too many conveniences – issues that hold it back from being one of the best films produced in 2017. That being said, you absolutely must watch this for the wonderful McDormand, who puts herself at the front of the pack for the big gold statue in 2018.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10