Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” is a marvel. Its central premise, a mother who challenges the law when she sees no progress on her daughter’s murder, sounds intriguing but fails to capture the complexities of the film.
Set in the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri, “Three Billboards,” tells the story of Mildred (Francis McDormand), a divorcée mother on a mission to move her daughters murder case along. She does so with a lack of subtlety and serious style.
Her choice of weapon, three billboards with one message, read simply: RAPED WHILE DYING, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?What ensues is a confrontation that spreads beyond Mildred and the local law revealing redeeming qualities in some and a weakness of character in others.
Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) proves to be an honorable cop whose faults lie mostly in being blind to the shortcomings of some of his fellow officers. Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is one such officer. His emotional responses to those he sees as challenging his departments authority are some of the film’s most cringeworthy moments.
While Dixon’s full arc is a little too good to be true, it is the movies so we’ll allow for a little optimism in terms of character redemption. In the end, the murder is not caught, some of the good have fallen, and some of the bad have not, but there’s hope still hope. If only because the story is clearly far from over.
The film takes on so many issues in an effortless way. It addresses privilege, something that Mildred takes full advantage of when she goes after the law. As a white female she can get away with things that others in her community cannot. The film makes a point of this. When Mildred proves to be untouchable, Dixon goes after her friend, Denise (Amanda Warren), requesting the maximum penalty on a bogus marijuana charge.
There’s a refreshing bluntness to the film. When Chief Willoughby attempts to garner sympathy from Mildred by revealing that he has cancer, while visibly moved, she simply states that she knows. And follows up with the zinger, “Well, they wouldn’t be as effective after you croaked.”
She follows that up by drilling through the thumb of a dentist with dishonorable intention. When brought in for questioning she coolly states that it’s his word again hers, “kind of like in all those rape cases you hear about. Except this time the chick ain’t losing.”
Even with her steely exterior, Mildred is not a stone-cold, bitter woman. She’s tough because she has to be, not because it’s her nature. In her harshest moments there’s a visible struggle on her face. At times she even drops her guard. When Willoughby coughs up blood while interrogating her, without blinking she switches from ice cold to caretaker, running to get help.
Frances McDormand deserves all the credit for the complexity of this character, and come Oscar Sunday she will probably get it. She gives Mildred a sweetness that shines through even in her darkest moments. She is a desperate woman, not a crazy one, and that is obvious in every second of her performance.
Sam Rockwell is equally deserving of praise. Without his performance, Dixon would be completely intolerable and unforgivable. Although, I’ll leave it up to you whether you think he’s deserving of redemption. He manages to charm one second — dancing to ABBA — and horrify the next — throwing a man out a window. There’s a sweetness and unnerving unhinged quality to Dixon. Rockwell walks that line carefully and effectively.
The film covers a ton more, from the cruelty of press speculation to a whole slew of relevant issues surrounding police and the people they’re supposed to protect.
It’s a wild ride through a rural community filled with a cast of characters you could find in any town. It’s funny, fierce, smart, and a film that forces you to look at the ugly parts of humanity in a new way. Most importantly, it’s a conversation starter.
…just for fun: