I was initially hesitant about all the positive buzz around this film because while I liked In Bruges, from writer/director Martin McDonagh, I thought his last outing, Seven Psychopaths, was a masturbatory, meta-pretentious mess. Thankfully, McDonagh has written and directed one of the best films of the year in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film is a sweeping southern story about a woman named Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand) who buys three billboards outside the eponymous town to shame the police, specifically its chief (Woody Harrelson), into solving her daughter's gruesome murder, which has since turned into a cold case. Hayes takes the police and town to task while they attempt to get her to remove the billboards through both legal and extralegal means.
McDonagh’s direction is simple and effective, but his writing is a testament to his history as a playwright because his scenes are dialogue heavy and character driven. The film is paced perfectly and escalates its tension logically. The film’s soundtrack is an effective mix of songs and a score that relies on Spanish-sounding steel guitar. The music really helps convey the film’s themes and emotions. The film is also filled to the brim with symbolism and subtext, especially in relation to violence against women in America, but also in regards to death, grief, and the moral question of vengeance. The American flag is everywhere in this movie and McDormand’s character almost exclusively dresses in reds, whites, and blues. Entire scenes are lit in backgrounds consisting of these three primary colors, and interspersed between these shots of “Old Glory” are some gorgeous wide angle shots of the American countryside. One scene worth mentioning for its efficacious and technically proficient poignancy is when Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) expresses his grief and explosive anger in a beautiful, long, unbroken take.
The casting and acting in Three Billboards is sublime. In fact, every character acts and feels like a real person. Frances McDormand will undoubtedly be nominated for another academy award for her performance in this film. She is phenomenal as a jaded, yet, tough-as-nails mother. Her character could have easily been a one-note silhouette. Instead, Hayes is a three-dimensional person, retaining her sense of humor as well as a softer underbelly, despite her ferocious anger. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Hayes becomes the living embodiment of this phrase. She’s not only fighting for herself or for her daughter’s memory, she’s an arbiter of justice for all women who are the victim of violence or abuse at the hands of men. Hayes views her actions as a war against the police department, but she is really crusading against all men whom she sees as being culpable. She venomously spits to the chief at one point, “It's his word against mine….and this chick ain’t gonna lose.”
Despite only being in the first half of the movie, Woody Harrelson is the glue that holds this movie together. Harrelson’s performance as the local chief of police is carried out with his trademark southern charm and humor. However, here Harrelson also imbues subtle layers of regret and loss. His character foils brilliantly with McDormand’s fiery scorn. Harrelson could have easily just been a moronic redneck cliche, “Take Them Damn Billboards Down, Woman!” but thankfully the film is much smarter than that. Instead, that character is played by Sam Rockwell, as the lowly, ignorant, and incompetent Officer Dixon. Much like the Walton Goggin’s deplorable character, Chris Mannix of The Hateful Eight, Dixon’s role is the closest thing the movie has to a traditional character arc. He starts off as an infamous idiot whose only notable achievement on the police force is torturing a black person in a prison cell, but by the end of the film, we sympathize with him.
Three Billboards is a thoughtful, nuanced film that handles the violent savagery at its core with supreme confidence. Excellently balancing its humorous elements with an impactful human drama, the film is a superb southern story steeped in symbolism that touches on many contemporary issues like sexual assault, racism, police brutality, and vigilantism. However, the film’s tight focus never feels like it's overextended or that it's trying too hard. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is expertly written, acted, and directed. Three Billboards is the best film I’ve seen all year. Go see it if it's playing near you.
TLDR: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an exceptional southern tale. A marvelous meld of drama and black comedy. 5/5 Stars