Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is outrageous, and about outrage. All its characters are angry to the core, but none more than Mildred, writer/director Martin McDonagh’s fierce, committed protagonist. Like many of his previous films and plays, McDonagh creates a sense of community, so the stakes of omnipresent anger are higher than a typical black comedy. No one can simply run away, and no one is willing to back down. There is a deeper purpose here – McDonagh unearths the failures of the American justice system – except he pulls back just when his satirical knife should plunge deeper. For a film where a grown woman thinks nothing of kicking a teenage girl in her genital area, it is strange how McDonagh ultimately loses his nerve.
The billboards are dilapidated when we first see them. They promised the charm of small town American, long before an adjacent freeway made them obsolete. Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a divorced mother whose front porch overlooks the billboards. One day she heads into town, and decides to buy them for a year. Their message explicitly provokes Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), Ebbing’s Chief of Police, because Mildred feels he is not doing his job. Someone brutally murdered Mildred’s daughter, and months have passed without an arrest, so she decides to push the police into action. They get defensive – the wheels of justice turn slowly, they argue – while the dim Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) lashes out at Mildred’s cause.
At first, the tension and thin veneer of tolerance are unreasonably funny. McDonagh has a unique way with language (profanity in particular), and Three Billboards has one glorious f-bomb after another. Mildred speaks to her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) like they’re both longshoremen, but he is just as quick to call her names. She is even more contemptuous of the police, and while Willoughby is sympathetic to her, he is quick to point out that the billboards make his job harder. It seems the billboards push everyone to their edge, so some scenes escalate toward violence – or the threat of violence – rather quickly. McDonagh never lets a scene end an expected place, so part of the film’s charm is how we never develop any sense of comfort. This also leads to bravura set-pieces, such as an unbroken shot where Dixon choose rage over grief, or another where Robbie pulls a knife on his absent father (John Hawkes).
Another charm is how the characters are flushed out, and have lives beyond how they serve the central conflict. Willoughby has cancer, for example, and his gnawing sense of morality informs his every decision. Dixon is a racist momma’s boy, with his mean-spirited mother (Sandy Martin) pushing him toward bad decisions. There are no answers or any sense of justice, so McDonagh instead circles at the possibility of understanding. He does not make it easy for his characters, particularly since they guard their true feelings. Provocation and acting out are the easiest answers for Mildred and the others, at least until Willoughby’s sickness gets the best of him.
Something strange happens in the middle of Three Billboards, and it unintentionally cheapens what happens afterward. I won’t spoil it, except to say it is a tragic event, and it recalibrates what everyone thinks of the billboards. Frayed nerves and short tempers seem all the more childish. McDonagh wants to give his characters resolution or a catalyst for change, which is a more polite way of saying he could not think of a way to wrap up his film properly. Mildred’s loosens her justifiable hatred, just as Dixon transitions from a racist cop into a misunderstood loser. The eventual pairings and mutual respect in Three Billboards do not make much sense, and have disastrous consequences for the deeper themes of injustice and pain. McDonagh ultimately treats American injustice like he treats profanity. They add color to the story, and not much else.
McDonagh started as a playwright, and like his film debut In Bruges, Three Billboards is a terrific showcase for its actors. McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell have meaty roles, imbuing their characters with as much humanity as McDonagh’s limited script can allow. Still, this film simply cannot reach the highs of In Bruges. It is easy to make a film where the lead characters are tourists; it is another thing entirely to give the suggestion that the characters are natives, living in the same place for years. Many of McDonagh’s early plays are set in Ireland, with clumsy titles like The Cripple of Inishmaan. Having conquered Ireland and becoming a voice for its people, McDonagh thought he could do the same for Middle America. I hate it break it to him, but it’s not that easy.