Darkly comic and often poignant, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri rattles with alarmingly topical rage, depicting a wounded America on a local scale.
Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a grief-stricken and uncompromising mother whose teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was raped and murdered seven months ago. With no matching DNA evidence, the case has gone cold and seemingly forgotten. Mildred decides to rent three billboards on a largely unused road to serve as a not-so-gentle reminder to the local chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) that justice is yet to be served.
While Chief Willoughby understands Mildred’s actions, despite fighting his own personal battle, loathsome Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes umbrage to the lack of respect shown to the authorities. Beginning a tirade of hatred not only towards Mildred but her supportive co-worker Denise (Amanda Warren) and Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), who rented the billboards to her.
Solving the crime isn’t at the centre of the film, instead, McDonagh examines the way a community can hold somebody else’s pain at arm’s length. Complacent with sympathising but refusing to take any collective responsibility. Before the erected billboards, the issue was out of sight, out of mind. With refreshed, harsh realities now staring the town in the face and media interesting growing, the focus wrongly turns to removing the billboards, rather than keeping the case alive.
Pressure intensifies not only from irritated neighbours but from Mildred’s violent ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes). Who insensitively reminds her that her stunt won’t bring their daughter back and cruelly blames her somewhat for her death. Whereas, her teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) simply can’t bear the blunt reminder of his sister’s horrific death.
Anger courses through the veins of the film, reaching a boiling point with Mildred. Flickering between blinding fury and quiet, all-consuming agony. McDormand is untouchable, despite being in formidable company with a veteran cast. On the other hand, malicious Dixon misplaces his frustrations. Rockwell effectively drifts between bumbling and vindictive, with an expected turn that only an actor of his calibre could pull off.
Calmer moments of reflection courtesy of letters written and narrated by Willoughby are brimming with wisdom and are truly moving. Harrelson’s effortless charisma and warmth seeping through despite not being on-screen. The supporting cast also excels with Jones continuing his hot streak after popping up in hits Get Out, The Florida Project and the groundbreaking, welcome return of Twin Peaks. It’s also a pleasure to see The Wire’s Clarke Peters, who briefly brings effortless class to the scattering of scenes he’s in.
McDonagh’s signature pitch black humour that shone in his memorable debut In Bruges and faltered in his underwhelming follow-up Seven Psychopaths, is thankfully cooked to perfection in his latest release. Audiences are gleefully hurled between glorious shifts in tone. From Mildred’s rousing, painfully accurate speech that systematically destroys a Catholic priest, rendering him hilariously dumbstruck. To a tense, police station based exchange between Mildred and Willoughby, that’s abruptly and comically cut short. Only to be followed by a sense of sorrow as the severity of the situation becomes apparent.
Sturdy but low-key, McDonagh’s direction allows space for the gifted ensemble cast to fully carve our their individual story. By stepping back, the location also speaks for itself. Capturing small-town America, with its friendly, quaint demeanour often concealing splinters of hostility and bitterness. Cinematography by Ben Davis is also subdued for the most part. Tenderly framing Mildred’s secluded moments of mourning, only ramping up to frantically stalk Dixon as he descends on his latest victim.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a bold, cathartic balancing act. Bolstered by a seasoned cast and led by a powerhouse performance from Frances McDormand.