MARTIN McDonagh may just be one of those directors who gradually improves with each film.
Though his debut feature In Bruges was arguably a misfire, Seven Psychopaths was a compensation of sorts. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is only his third feature.
It is not just his finest work to date, but it is the very film that proves his combination of violent comedy and sensitive drama can end with a viewer feeling full satisfaction.
Seven months have passed since the teenage daughter of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) was raped and murdered, yet in her eyes, the police are more interested in maintaining their racist attitudes than searching for a suspect.
Such is her frustration that one day, she sells her ex-husband’s trailer (unknown to him) and uses the proceeds to fund the sale of three disused billboards that each explain her daughter’s dying moments, the lack of progress and rhetorically asking the police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why.
Among many, the police are furious, notably the dim-witted mummy’s boy Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Even a visit from Willoughby sympathetically explaining how the lack of witnesses and evidence has left the case stalling is still not enough for her to back down.
While Mildred ploughs on in her protest amidst a gradually hostile environment involving family and the town’s residents, unexpected subplots involving Willoughby and Dixon lead to events where life in Ebbing will not be the same again.
The main thing that makes this film work so wonderfully is the ways in which genuine humor balances sufficiently with truly devastating subject matters. By recruiting McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell in the three key roles, the film owes much of its success to the performances of the three veteran actors who are all just as adept at being funny and moving.
The standout performance is perhaps that of Rockwell whose status as the prejudiced, ask-questions later Dixon suggests a typical one-dimensional role. Thanks though to McDonagh’s talent at characterization and dialogue, the journey that Dixon undergoes is not what one expects as the film progresses even after we observe some reprehensible activity on his part.
The scene that probably earns Rockwell his highest points comes when events fuel Dixon to throw the rules out of the window (quite literally), all done in a virtuoso tracking shot.
Harrelson is where the biggest laughs come from thanks to a deadpan delivery of lines, particular in one scene where he showcases his comic talent with an exasperated response to being reminded of the billboards.
He also brings a different kind of sympathy due to a twist which sets in motion the events that dominate the second half, with each scene a reminder of why Harrelson totally suits working with McDonagh, as demonstrated prior in Seven Psychopaths.
McDormand is also at times superb to watch as the grieving mother crafting a one-woman team against those who take her on.
When the local priest goes to visit her home to discuss her actions, Mildred explains how being a gang where one commits a crime makes that person culpable. Being a Catholic priest she speaks to, one can see where she goes with this monologue, which by the end is likely to leave many open-mouthed at the audacity of Mildred.
It is the combination of dialogue, direction and acting that makes this film such a rewarding experience. There is a tragic story at heart and thankfully we never see the grisly deed, just through conversation.
What we do get is a flashback sequence in a kitchen that depicts the last time that Mildred saw her daughter, during which an argument breaks out with Mildred’s sarcastic words providing a heartbreaking sense of irony. Scenes like this are designed to provoke reaction and never more so in the film does this do that, providing a clear investment the viewer has for the characters.
The kitchen itself is also the location for another solidly-written scene in which Mildred’s ex Charlie (John Hawkes) confronts her about the billboards, expressing a Jake LaMotta-like rage in one moment and the feeling of loss the next. By adding their son (Lucas Hedges) and Charlie’s much younger girlfriend to the fray and the result is yet another example of why McDonagh would be a deserving winner of as many Screenplay awards in this awards season.
It also plays as a timely social commentary, given the reputation the police force in this film has with regards to Dixon’s openness about his torture of a black suspect. It also depicts the supposed prejudices faced among black people, notably when Dixon recommends Mildred’s close friend be imprisoned for the minor charge of possessing marijuana.
Such is the blatant discrimination of the force that when a suited black police detective (Clarke Peters) arrives at the station, he is greeted with an obnoxious attitude and is forced to verify his identification, putting in place the officers who appear shocked at the arrival. These scenes work effectively in regards to storytelling and, like scenes away from the force, involve moments that are both hilarious and moving.
With three impressive performers headlining, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a often highly entertaining tragicomedy that plays as one of the strongest features in this awards season race.