A terrible unwieldy title can sometimes seriously put you off watching a film, but I’m glad that the positive word of mouth and critical acclaim got me into the cinema after all. This sharp, funny, brutal drama from Martin McDonagh is probably the best worst-named movie I’ve seen.
In its defense, the title is an accurate summary of what the movie is about – three battered and shabby billboards on a forgotten road outside Ebbing, Missouri that nobody drives down anymore. That is, until they attract the attention of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who is grieving and angry after her daughter was raped and murdered seven months ago, with no arrests since. Hardened and determined, Mildred walks into the local advertising place like a gunslinger in a western with the idea of renting the billboards for a year, displaying a bold controversial message in angry red and black, aimed directly at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s respected chief of police. Mildred’s stunt doesn’t sit well with her fellow townspeople, including her son and ex-husband, but it especially ticks off local cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted immature mama’s boy with a penchant for violence and, as Willoughby puts it, vaguely racist leanings.
I read virtually nothing about this movie and had no idea what to expect, but it soon became clear that the more obvious story directions – a conventional crime thriller, a one-woman noble quest against the corrupt system – weren’t going to happen. Three Billboards is rather more concerned with the personal dynamics between its hugely flawed characters and themes of anger, loss, grief and redemption, with three exceptional raw performances at its centre. It’s also one of the most flat-out hilarious films I’ve seen in a long while, though the humour is often pitch-black and/or laced with violence, and makes you wince as well as laugh out loud. Because it’s so well-written, even the film’s minor characters manage to make an impression, in particular Peter Dinklage (miles away from Westeros) as Mildred’s sweet-natured would-be suitor.
I’ve always been a big fan of Frances McDormand and Three Billboards gives her what’s probably her best role since her Oscar-winning appearance in Fargo. There’s always something secretly riveting in watching a character who simply doesn’t give a damn about being liked, especially a female character since the societal expectation of women being pleasant is much greater. But while Mildred’s loss elicits empathy, and while it’s undeniably entertaining to watch her verbally lacerate other characters like a boss (her putdown of the local priest is worth the price of admission alone), the very real pain she causes them is also obvious. From the flashbacks to the past, it seems that Mildred was never a picnic to live with, but in her all-consuming grief and anger, she’s become calcified (even her wardrobe choice of always wearing the same work overalls is a sign of a woman who’s frozen in a moment). There’s a touch of the Count of Monte Cristo about Mildred, including a moment when, in her quest for vengeance, she goes way too far.
This inability to move on past anger puts Mildred on a surprising kindred path to Dixon, a character who on the first glance doesn’t seem to deserve a second chance or even a single kind word. Sam Rockwell has been a steady, watchable actor for years, but Dixon’s character and trajectory in this movie is truly remarkable. Though Three Billboards doesn’t offer easy solutions or closure for its characters, it somehow manages to end on a positive and hopeful note.