Performances, Sharp Writing Propel “Three Billboards.”
There’s a righteous anger propelling Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and it doesn’t pertain simply to the plight of its main character, grieving mother Mildred Hayes. While her fury is wholly justified, the writer/director is speaking to greater concerns than simply one person’s ire, addressing as well the sense of moral outrage so many of us are feeling in response to a world that’s gone mad, where truth is no longer valued, criminals not only go free but prosper and basic social niceties have gone the way of the dinosaur. Three Billboards is a timely primal scream of a movie that will resonate with viewers in ways they won’t anticipate.
Frustrated by the lack of progress being made in the investigation of her teen daughter’s death, Hayes (Frances McDormand) takes matters into her own hands. Renting three billboards leading into the titular town, she takes the local authorities to task with successive messages that read: “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests,” “How Come Chief Willoughby?” Needless to say, this does not sit will with the aforementioned police chief (Woody Harrelson), a genuinely good man who has followed investigative procedure, followed up on leads and come up empty where suspects to this heinous crime are concerned. Equally upset by this public calling out is his faithful deputy Office Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted blowhard that wields his authority with impunity, never giving a second thought to physically abusing suspects.
The film examines the ripple effects of Hayes’ act, some of it predictable, some of it unexpected but plausible. The commonality all the characters, among them Hayes’ abusive ex Charlie (John Hawkes) and her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), share is that a tragedy has befallen all of them yet their reaction to the trauma they’ve suffered varies wildly. A few allow their rage to consume them, one decides to make amends in the face of crisis, while another becomes an agent of change. Credit McDonagh’s script with not just some of the best dialogue you’ll hear in a film this year but with well-drawn, varied, characters whose flaws are relatable. While each of them is suffering, they all refuse to let their troubles defeat them, a commendable trait that’s all too rare.
Characters such as these are the sort actors love to tackle so it’s no wonder McDonagh was able to assemble the veteran cast he did. Oscar talk immediate for McDormand and Rockwell sprang up early in the year when Three Billboards was making the film festival circuit and it’s easy to see why. (The mystery is why Harrelson hasn’t been mentioned in this conversation…) These three know that while they may be playing larger-than-life characters, it’s vital that their humanity be present as well. The trio succeeds in doing just that and as a result, anchor the film in reality, preventing these people from becoming too outlandish, which could have easily happened in lesser hands.
McDonagh’s script contains two flaws in its logic that I just can’t get around but their not so great that they undermine the entire film. And while its structure nearly collapses after a shocking act that begins its second hour, the work of the cast and the compelling nature of the problems the characters face keep it all together. It’s saving grace is the ending McDonagh provides, an unconventional yet wholly realistic conclusion that may frustrate some, yet is perfectly sound as it refuses to pander and offer a pat answer to the complex questions the movie poses.