‘Look at all the pretty things’ warbles a song on Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) car radio. It’s a piece of advice that she and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri refuse to heed, and it’s for the best. This is an excoriating, hilarious film from Martin McDonagh, examining grief and vengeance, collective culpability, and the power of individual forgiveness, anchored by a top form Frances McDormand. Humanity’s ugly side is out in full force in the town of Ebbing, and simple prettiness is nowhere to be found, with hope instead coming from more difficult, multifaceted places.
Mildred has erected the three billboards to remind her town, more specifically its police department, that the rape and murder of her daughter one year prior remains unsolved, with not a single arrest made. Still grieving and furious at the lack of progress, she enters into a war of words with Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his men, including racist thug Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell). It’s a tragic plot – Mildred is fully aware deep down that what she’s doing is not actually helping – and McDonagh respects it as such, earning his many huge laughs because of the emotional grounding rather than despite it.
In this respect, Three Billboards is a lot closer in spirit to In Bruges than Seven Psychopaths, which is always a good thing. It’s immeasurably better than McDonagh’s muddled sophomore effort and in fact even surpasses his beloved and brilliant debut. His script is electrifying, the funniest of the year and laden with depth, nuance, and compassion, culminating in a perfect conclusion that saddens but ultimately satisfies way more than had a cheaper, easier way out been used. With its cutting monologues (two or three of which got huge applause mid-film from the Venice Film Festival audience) and hilarious one-liners, not to mention darting, barbed back and forths, it’s a rare gift for the actors, all of whom go all out to make it count.
McDormand matches her very best performances as Mildred who, even at her most alienatingly snide and short, is clearly holding back a storm of emotion that would blow all of Ebbing away if she let it. It’s the kind of brilliant, difficult acting that doesn’t let you see the cogs working, so should net her tonnes of awards that will probably end up going to a far duller performance. Harrelson is a fabulous foil to her – their characters hold a grudging respect for one another, and the pair tease out a long shared history through nothing more than minor physical gestures and changes in cadence during a sustained questioning.
As the town picks sides in the Hayes-Willoughby war of words (she directly, and damningly addresses the ‘why no arrests’ billboards to him personally), the film refuses to see things in such a black and white manner. Willoughby has done his absolute best in a dead end case, and is heartbroken that he’s been unable to help bring justice and closure to the Hayes family. Even though his men may be violent idiots (and McDonagh constantly takes the institution of the American police force to task), he’s a decent man, and Harrelson is the perfect choice for the role.
As Dixon, Rockwell is the best he’s been since Moon, slowly bringing more and more layers to the character. He’s never let off the hook for his prejudice and sordid past, but nor is he denied any opportunity to earn sympathy. Three Billboards is disinterested by easy answers. Characters’ decisions, good and bad, spring from actual pain, and even when the consequences are ludicrously funny, nothing is ever so far removed from reality that it feels cartoonish. Even the more minor characters are given rich inner lives and treated with respect from Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, basically redoing his role from Manchester by the Sea and absolutely nailing it again) to her lovelorn admirer James (Peter Dinklage).
There is a bit of an air of self-satisfied smugness in Three Billboards, but in choosing sincerity over cynicism, the more negative effects of this are muted. You can’t begrudge a film this smart and funny for having a positive opinion of itself. The western-esque score combined with small-town violence and McDormand’s presence invites comparisons to Fargo, which, amazingly, doesn’t do anything to lessen Three Billboards.
2017 has been rather devoid of good cinematic comedy, so to just call Three Billboards the funniest film of the year is, in a way, to undersell it. It wipes the floor with its competition for that title, and is also a hugely satisfying and affecting drama. It’s the kind of film that you’d be willing to let go on forever, but instead it quits while it is (very far) ahead, leaving all its characters in exactly the right place and the audience craving more.