Always truth in advertising.
After months of her daughter’s rape-murder investigation stalling, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides that it’s time to let the world know of her annoyance and pain. She gets the grand idea of renting out three billboards, right outside of Ebbing, Missouri, which read: “RAPED WHILE DYING. AND STILL NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”. It’s enough to get her point across, but also to piss-off everyone in town, including Willoughby himself (Woody Harrelson), who has cancer and is just trying to live out the last few years of his life in peace and solitude. However, the whole town turns on Mildred and her sense of anarchy, which makes her public enemy #1 in the eyes of Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a police-officer who uses his mouth and knight-stick, more than he actually uses his head and code-of-conduct. In fact, that seems to be a general problem with this little town of Ebbing, wherein minorities are still mistreated, corruption is still swept under the rug, and oh yeah, rape-murder cases, where all sorts of DNA is to be found, don’t ever get solved.
Just bone already. He’s got a few months left. Might as well.
Writer/director Martin McDonagh has proved with his movies (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and this) that he doesn’t really care about what people like, don’t like, what’s considered “politically correct”, or not. He likes to write despicable, sometimes inhumane characters who say what they want, do what they want, and whenever they want, regardless of what kind of audience is out there to accept it and see it for what it is. In a way, that makes McDonagh a true risk-taker and a brash talent to keep an eye on.
It’s also why Three Billboards will really rub people the wrong way, as well as it should.
McDonagh writes a lot of questionable dialogue, for sure; the use of the word “retard”, the n-word, and “c**t”, to name a few, are spewed quite a few times by just about every character. Obviously, this is meant to shock and surprise us, but it’s also meant to get us closer and closer to this town, these characters, the lives they live, and give us an even better idea of what small-town America look, sounds, and acts like, post-Trump. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of cursing, a lot of misogyny, a lot of racism, a lot of corruption, and oh yeah, nobody gives a shit, because we’re supposed to be making America great again.
Whether or not McDonagh intended for this metaphor to be drawn or not, doesn’t entirely matter; it’s what how we view the movie, in this context that matters most and it’s why I’m able to give this movie, like his others, a pass. McDonagh doesn’t seem to love or entirely adore the way these characters are and the way they talk, but he’s more so fascinated by them and if anything, it’s why Three Billboards works much more than it should. It’s the kind of movie that likes to beat-up and make fun of its characters, while also realizing that they’re human, accepting them, and asking for us to do the same.
And at the same time, still being a very smart, well-written, hilarious, and sometimes tense dramedy that doesn’t know when to stop making jokes, or being mean.
And yet again, there’s something fun about that. McDonagh’s dialogue, while highly stylized and unrealistic, is also snappy and filled with something to laugh, while simultaneously, think about. A whole diatribe about how the clergy and the Crips and Bloods aren’t too different from one another, while seemingly out of left-field, is also a bit of dialogue that only McDonagh could make work, regardless of if it matters to the plot or not. McDonagh has a couple of speeches that are just like this – they don’t really matter to the plot, but they’re fun to listen to – but they also seem to exist in this world where everyone’s always thinking and having something smart to say, even if they themselves may not be all that smart to begin with.
Love him, or hate him. Actually, just love him.
But like I said, it’s the three-dimensional characters here that really allow for Three Bilboards to go above and beyond just being a bunch of funny pieces of dialogue, strung-together with a rubber-band. Frances McDormand, as per usual, is amazing as Mildred Hayes, a role that seems to have been written for her, only because it’s the same role she’s been playing for the past 30 or so years. Yet, it never gets old. She’s still sassy, rough, tough, and seeming like the smartest person in the room, but she’s also a human being, with a real heart, soul, and sense of humanity that shows up in surprising, but earned ways. A lot of McDonagh’s dialogue, coming out of the wrong mouths, just wouldn’t work, but thankfully, McDormand’s isn’t one of them.
Why am I talking about Frances McDormand’s mouth?
Anyway, she’s aided by a solid supporting cast who, like McDormand, know what material they’re dealing with and make it work. Harrelson’s Willoughby is a tragic and sad soul, and builds a nice chemistry with Mildred; Lucas Hedges plays Mildred’s son who’s all sorts of angsty, but still fits; John Hakwes shows up as the abusive and mean ex-husband, and is surprisingly effective; and Peter Dinklage, when not seeming like the butt of every dwarf-joke thrown his way, still gives us a sweet character who genuinely seems to love and appreciate Mildred. Then, there’s Sam Rockwell who, once again, proves why he’s one of the best actors working today. As Dixon, he’s still got that charm we all know and love him for, but there’s something deeper, darker, and meaner to him than we’ve seen before. It’s a slight change-of-pace for Rockwell, but it’s a welcome one that gives us a character we learn to love to hate and it will hopefully give Rockwell some sort of Academy love.
Then again, probably not.
Consensus: As per usual with McDonagh, Three Billboards is rash, brash, mean, and a little distasteful, but by the same token, funny, well-acted, unpredictable, and even heartfelt, once you get past all of the cursing.
8.5 / 10
I guess billboards are still a thing, post-Y2K.
Photos Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight Pictures