From watching In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, it’s obvious that Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh has a brain. With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he demonstrates that he has a big heart to go with it.
With his new offering, the Oscar-winner (for his short Six Shooter) supplements his intricate plotting and razor-sharp dialogue with a sense of compassion for his characters. Without becoming a Pollyanna, McDonagh reveals that even his most contemptible characters are far from irredeemable.
That rejection of nihilism prevents Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri from becoming a witty exercise in cynicism. That could have been easy for a story about an unsolved murder and rape. The victim’s mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand) is understandably frustrated and angry that seven months have passed since her daughter’s death, and the perpetrator is still presumably walking free.
“Director McDonagh finds something strangely universal in his phony Missouri town…”
To shame and possibly energize the seemingly moribund police force in her hometown of Ebbing, Mildred rents three unused billboards on a rarely traveled highway outside of town. While most travelers won’t see her angry call for action, the cops clearly get the message. She really irks Ebbing’s finest by calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) by name.
If her single-mindedness gets off-putting, Mildred is nursing her own feelings of shame. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she wonders if she bears some responsibility for her daughter’s death. The two didn’t get along when Angela (Kathryn Newton) was alive, and now Mildred is tormented because she can’t make up with her daughter.
It turns out that Willoughby and his subordinates have a good reason for making no arrests. Without DNA matching the killer, the cops can’t make an arrest. Willoughby’s force are also furious with Mildred’s foray into advertising because the Chief has terminal cancer, and her campaign is making his final days more miserable than they need to be.
Admittedly, Ebbing’s police force has some talent issues. Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a hothead who seems more volatile than intimidating when it comes to law enforcement. Thanks to Rockwell’s energetic but nuanced performance, he’s also oddly likable.
It also doesn’t hurt that McDonagh gives his characters consistently lively banter that’s as right for their milieu as it is tactlessly offensive. In a reference to the police misconduct that has occurred in places like Ferguson, Willoughby laments, “If you get rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, then you’d have three cops left and all o’ them are gonna hate the f**s so what are you donna do, y’know?”
“With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he demonstrates that he has a big heart to go with his formidable brain…”
The writer-director does have a gift for giving his characters well-meaning but misguided statements of support. McDonagh also nails the way that people in small towns have no secrets.
Mildred’s billboards aren’t conveying any new information, and Willoughby’s health problems might as well be posted on them as well. While it’s moving to watch him attempt to maintain his dignity despite his terminal illness, he can’t hide it. In addition, people in small, cramped environments like Ebbing can’t afford to let grudges weigh them down. Vindictiveness is counterproductive when you have to interact with people who have disputes with on a daily basis.
Considering the sordid themes running throughout Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh’s tone is astonishingly warm. He knows how to poke fun at characters’ quirks without demeaning them.
Neither he nor the cast bother to get the accents right (I live in Kansas and work in the Show Me State), but McDonagh finds something strangely universal in his phony Missouri town.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) Directed by Martin McDonagh. Written by Martin McDonagh. Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, Zeljko Ivanek, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, Sandy Martin, Kathryn Newton, Samara Weaving.
9 out of 10