Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand in tour de force mode) is an angry woman-and for good reason. Her daughter was brutally murdered in a small town in the hills Missouri’s countryside city, Ebbing, and there have been no leads on suspects in months. So, instead of simmering quietly, Mildred rents out three billboards on an abandoned road in order to get the attention of Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and his police department. The tactic works, setting off fires of rage, compassion, and anger throughout the town.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, is about the power of forgiveness and how believing in change can steer us through the worst moments of our lives. As I watched this movie, one of the best of 2017 or any recent year, I was mesmerized by its ability to juggle so many different emotions while keeping its bullseye centered on our hearts. You won’t know where this movie is going, as McDonagh wisely shifts the tone between dark humor, brutal drama, and hard hitting revenge.
As Mildred angers more people with her aggressive tactics, familiar things do occur, but the plot also sets the characters up on an inventive narrative collision course that is impossible to take your eyes away from. Three Billboards is one of those films that seems like a simplistic tale built on bits of cinematic wonder that we’ve seen before, but the manner with which those pieces come together is bold and fresh. McDonagh could have taken the first act of the film and made an easy to please revenge film full of entertaining action, but he instead makes a movie that can really help people defeat cultural divides like race, class structure, and the ordinary human urge.
Example: Rockwell’s badge initially comes off as a reckless man of violent tendencies and destruction, but the journey his character goes on as the film progresses is just a singular example of how impressive this movie is, and how much it stands out.
Name another movie that can make you laugh, cry, and be shockingly moved inside 15 minutes. When a main character dies suddenly right around the midpoint of the film, it feels like a knife stabbing into your heart, but the plot twist is a perfectly triggered moment that kicks the rest of the film into motion. Again, bold strokes is all McDonagh believe in here.
It helps to have a cast working at the top of their game. Try looking left or right with this group and not see Oscar worthy performances, because they are all around. McDormand is quite deft at wielding humor and emotion together into a cohesive performance, and she makes Mildred an easy soul to champion, but doesn’t create anything superhero here. Her heroine has flaws and shows cracks in her facade, but her defiance is the recipe for the actress to built something special that should get award attention.
Harrelson is nearly as good as an unconventional yet old school cop who just wants to help people and hold onto his respect and dignity. He shares a couple great scenes with McDormand, the two vets trading blows like boxers in a ring as the town anger intensifies. Rockwell may be the most impressive surprise here, because we know the guy can act, but even he finds new grooves in Dixon’s incompetent yet not hopeless agitator. You’ll love, hate, and despise this guy, but Rockwell keeps you honest with his performance.
Abbie Cornish makes the most of what could have been a throwaway role for many other actresses, while John Hawkes blends malevolence and sincere care as Mildred’s ex. Peter Dinklage plays a different speed than usual as someone who takes an interest in Mildred, while Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) makes his own fire as her son, dealing with the loss of a sibling while seeing it all made very personal during his mother’s fight. Caleb Landry Jones’s Red Welby is another grand creation for the actor of many talents this fall season, while Sandy Martin is simply wonderful as Dixon’s mother.
Three Billboards has a satisfying conclusion that avoids tying a neat bow on the plot, instead leaving the door open for your mind to wonder about what happened without being wrecked about it. Something is inferred and that’s about enough. By the time we ride off into the credits sunset watching two characters come together against all odds, you’ll just sit there and smile at what McDonagh accomplished.
Here is a film that promotes the strength of forgiveness and how much power that ability can wield, even in desperate, terrible conditions. Without focusing too much on it, McDonagh draws considerable attention to the many unsolved murder cases of young teens that happen unfortunately every day of the year. By aiming for the heart and not settling for theatrics, McDonagh produces a hopefuly-and extremely powerful-film. It’s not about who killed Mildred’s daughter, Angela; it’s about characters finding a level of peace with how chaotic the world can become.
I left the theater moved, empowered, and ready to talk about it. It’s the first film that made me think about Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor in one film.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the official kickoff of the award caliber cinema season. The Not Messing Crew has arrived and its name is Mildred Hayes.
Please check this film out. It hits harder than most.