Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a mouthful of a title for a film that’s a punch in the gut. The film is an exercise in tonal precision, with bleakness and gallows humour combining to craft a movie as provocative as any you’re going to encounter.
This is the story of a mother named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) who erects three provocative billboards in order to shame the local police Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his deputies like Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) into action following the brutal rape and murder of her daughter. Her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) compensates with a 19-year old girlfriend (Samara Weaving in a small but perfect role), while Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) has his own battles to fight.
The rest of the ensemble includes such luminous performers as Željko Ivanek, Clarke Peters, Caleb Landry Jones and Peter Dinklage, tremendous thespians to elevate their roles every time they’re on screen. With such a sterling cast it’s easy to get lost in the power of the performances – That is until McDormand comes on screen and positively slays things with the power of her craft. Rockwell’s role is perhaps more thankless, yet he provides another of his fantastic takes. You can get giddy watching such prowess, and on that level alone this is one of the year’s great films.
Yet Three Billboards is more than just a showcase for these talents, it’s also a wonderfully provocative narrative that consistently goes in surprising directions. Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths played to great acclaim, of course, but it seems that this work is primed for even more acclaim. For a writer with serious theatrical chops the film never feels like a chamber piece set in a proscenium. There’s a naturalism to the language perfectly befitting such a narrative, along with visuals that are eminently cinematic. Lenser Ben Davis shot the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Kick-Ass, so it’s a testament to his own talents that the images are portrayed with an elegance and naturalistic subtlety.
Having let the film sit for a few days I still can’t tell if the last scenes are truly earned by what came before, but regardless of any reservations it’s a whopper of a finish. It’s an amazing road to get to the final moments, and like the proverbial frog in the slowly heated water there’s a question of how we get to this boiling point when the temperature was only rising bit by bit.
In her decades of amazing roles McDormand has often astonished, but with Hayes she may have given us her best take yet (certainly one can’t think of a non-Coen performance that’s as deliriously note-perfect as this one). Rockwell’s Dixon is a downright mess, and it’s his journey that feels a bit less believable at times, yet the way that it all comes together you tend to quickly forget about any reservations.
For a work of such deep sorrow and grief there’s also the injection of some true warmth and levity. Look at the way that Hayes holds hands with her ex-husband after a violent encounter, or the care she shows to another when he shows signs of weakness. It’s indicative of both the evil and grace of living within a small town, one that’s fuelled by small mindedness at conflict with genuine a sense of community. It’s these fascinating moments of ambivalence, one after one, that casts the entire film in tones of moral greyness. There are few works to ever paint such gradients better.
With its confident execution, provocative narrative and a Olympian ensemble led by the sheer magnetic force of McDormand’s Mildred, Three Billboards announces itself as a work of tremendous intelligence and impact, turning on its head all expectations of how things should play out in traditional narratives and leaving the viewer more questioning than when they began. This is what great art can do, and this film in so many ways can truly be considered as such.