Who’da thunk that a film which is not only one of the most quintessentially American films of the year, but also manages to perfectly capture current sociological zeitgeist – just this side of Get Out from earlier this year – would be written and directed by a Brit? Funny how things turn out.
The film in question here is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s the latest from filmmaker and playwright, Martin McDonagh, who also did In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. It’s about a grieving mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who puts up a message over three billboards that are meant to provoke the local law enforcement into actually doing their jobs and make some progress in her daughter’s rape and murder case. And to put it mildly, things get a little rowdy after that.
Like his previous films, Martin McDonagh has a knack for crafting complicated and fascinating characters and weaving sharp, and pitch black absurdist humor within their narrative, and Three Billboards is no different. The film is full of complex, multidimensional characters, each of whom are layered with ideas and emotions underneath their archetypal surface. And because of that, the actors are all excellent here. Frances McDormand hasn’t been able to stretch her muscles like this since Fargo, Woody Harrelson is surprisingly warm and contemplative, and Sam Rockwell delivers one of his best performances as the drunk, violent and bigoted cop. Even supporting characters played by the likes of John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, and Kathryn Newton, among others, are able to breath as performers, bringing their characters to life effortlessly and with so much empathy and nuance. It is undoubtedly a performance driven film, one headed by McDormand no doubt, but everyone gets a chance to shine.
McDonagh’s writing is also as sharp as ever. His dark sense of humor compliments the drama well; never losing sight of the characters and their emotional arcs. While it may feel like it’s playing fast and loose for most of the time, there’s always a sense of control. Each moment punctuates and enhances and deepens what came before. The story takes many turns, some of which would feel like a cheap twist at the hands of a lesser filmmaker, but here, it’s always serving a greater purpose. It is a film best experienced knowing little going in, as it will only enrich your experience as well as wanting to watch it again to see everything from with a wholly new perspective.
Like In Bruges, there’s an undercurrent of sadness throughout, with the whole thing essentially being grounded on a foundation of a terrible crime, but on top of that is seething rage. But it’s not as simple as it might seem. It’s a form of cultural rage. We’re living in it right now, a time when everyone is pissed off (and occasionally rightly so) over something. We are judge everyone who thinks differently, we are frustrated by outdated systems, and we don’t even have the ability feel safe anywhere. We’re all desperately looking for some type of catharsis, or even a glimmer of hope, and we’ll take whatever we can get no matter how small or inconsequential it might be. It reflects a bleak and angry world, but one where there is a possibility for personal growth and change and reflection, and even when they are small, they’re worth it.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is incredible work. Not only is it Martin McDonagh’s finest film yet, it is absolutely one of the best films of the year, perhaps even the most essential. It’s one of those rare films that perfectly capture the mood and energy that surrounds and binds us in a world that seems to get crazier and crazier by the day. But as dark as things might seem, like with the most recent shooting in Texas, there is always a glimmer of hope and catharsis, as many people have seen with some of the election results from last night. As sobering, mean, and hauntingly relevant Three Billboards might sound right now, it still manages to be a totally watchable, hilarious, and touching piece of entertainment. To pull off a balancing act like that requires the deft hand of a master, and Martin McDonagh is more than up to the task.