Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri arrives with a great deal of anticipation, given that it comes from Martin McDonagh after establishing himself as one of the best screenwriters working today with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Like his previous two films, the characters of Three Billboards operate almost entirely within a moral grey area, however, while In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths mined such dubiously ethical individuals for comedy, Three Billboards presents an altogether more serious affair (far more so than the trailers might have suggested). There may be humour here and there, but for the most part it exists to emphasise the darkness, rather than to undercut it.
It would be easy, in the hands of a lesser writer/director, for a story about such characters to simply devolve into something unpleasant and nihilistic, however this is not the case for McDonagh. Barely any character in the film is presented in a particularly sympathetic light; even the ostensible hero, Mildred, played by Frances McDormand is often cruel, blunt and treats other characters with contempt. Thanks to McDonagh’s excellent writing and characterisation, each action taken by the characters makes sense; we as the audience may not sympathise with them, but are instead encouraged to empathise with them, to understand why they do the things they do, unacceptable as they may be.
A large part of this can also be attributed to the central performances of the film, with Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell fully earning their recent Golden Globes success. Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby steals the film for a few scenes, with no less than three monologues, each as gut-wrenching as the last. Sam Rockwell, too, gives an outstanding performance as the police officer Dixon, equal parts dim and horrific, which may just earn him a long-deserved Oscar. It is with his character that it becomes clear that the film is not trying to defend the actions of its characters, but instead attempting to explain why he does the inexcusable things he does. McDormand, however, is the standout, giving one of the best performances of an already-excellent career as the noble but very abrasive Mildred Hayes; a role as far-removed as possible from the sunny, moral Marge Gunderson in Fargo. A large amount of the film shifts focus between these three characters, helping to re-enforce the constant acts of one-upmanship and attempts to claw to the moral high ground that define the film.
The cycle of violence plays a significant part in Three Billboards, with each action provoking a retaliation and eventual escalation with a sense of grim inevitability. The film refuses to give any easy answers, its ending raising even more questions about the nature of morality which continue to play on the mind days after watching it. A lot has been made of the ending of the film, with questions of sensitivity over the arc of a certain character coming to the forefront, although it is obviously difficult to get into this without spoiling the film. Here, however, it becomes clear that that the film is determined not to condone the actions of its characters, but instead to present them as fully-realised – but sometimes grotesquely flawed – individuals.This complete commitment to such an impartial way of telling the story may work for most of the runtime, but whilst the film is careful not to condone the actions of the characters, it also makes little effort to condemn them. Admittedly, this throws up some uncomfortable questions. Intentional or not, these questions lead to a slight criticism that a serious issue is treated as little more than a sub-plot – one that does work on a technical level, but the treatment of which could be viewed as slightly reductive. The fact that almost every scene involving the police creates such a sense of unease and tension in most scenes, on the other hand, is particularly damning.
The slightly cumbersome title of the film also makes far more sense upon viewing. The town of Ebbing and its location in the American South is just as central to the plot as any character, a town where everyone knows everybody else, and each has their own opinion on the unfolding events between Mildred, Chief Willoughby and Dixon. Large parts of the film almost come across as an ensemble piece, with Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage and Sandy Martin playing characters who feel fully fleshed-out and realised, despite their limited screen time.
Part of what makes the film work so well is the way it manages to walk the tightrope between making every character’s actions make sense given what we know about them, whilst also playing expertly against expectation. Several scenes begin in a way which appears to be leading the audience down a particular path, before they are completely and unexpectedly turned on their head, contributing to the air of unpredictability which runs throughout the film. In some cases, the viewer is forced to completely re-evaluate the way characters have been presented throughout the film.
The result of this all serves to emphasise the difficult, contradictory nature of grief and anger, and the effects they have on the people surrounding them. At some times it may not be an easy watch, but it is one that has stuck with me long after watching.
Words by Adam Wells