Just when I thought I, Tonya was as dark as comedy would get this awards season, Frances McDormand had to go and kick two teenagers in the crotch.
It’s one of several moments in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that will make you laugh, only to feel guilty immediately after. After all, laughing while a woman fights for justice after the brutal rape and murder of her daughter feels wrong. For writer-director Martin McDonagh and his crusading protagonist Mildred Hayes (McDormand), discomfort is exactly the point. Hayes has been waiting seven months for a break in her daughter’s case, and she’s had enough. With the crime fading from public consciousness and the police force proving absurdly inept, Hayes decides to wake her Missouri town up. Inspiration comes during a drive home, taking notice of three abandoned billboards near the site of her daughter’s gruesome death. Hayes rents the billboards for a year and puts up three separate, connected messages, demanding answers from police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). The billboards quickly ruffles feathers. The police, particularly Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), are furious at being labeled incompetent. The townspeople are rankled by the bold vulgarity, of the billboards’ message and Hayes herself. Willoughby, a revered, ailing figure in the community, is frustrated but sympathetic to her mission. Hayes’ billboards ultimately push Ebbing past the pretense of civility to more open warfare, especially after another unexpected tragedy befalls the fragile town. Through it all, Hayes persists, channeling her crippling grief and righteous anger into a singular campaign.
As serious as he takes Hayes’ fight for answers, McDonagh doesn’t lose sight of the unique quirks of small town living, and their contributions to the failings of the justice system. McDonagh is quite fearless in how deep and dark he’s willing to take Three Billboards’ humor, from physical pain to wildly insensitive jokes about every group you could imagine. What’s remarkable is how McDonagh weaves the pitch-black comedy in so deftly with the film’s more solemn and tragic threads to create genuine, unexpectedly resonant moments. The shifts in tone can wear sometimes, but it is a largely successful exercise in service of Hayes’ justifiable crusade. Much less successful is Three Billboards’ attempt at racial politics. McDonagh introduces prejudice through the character of Officer Dixon – Hayes invokes his history of racially charged violence as a case in point for the billboards – but fails to offer anything resembling a resolution for either character in that regard. It’s a glaring blemish on an otherwise incredibly strong story.
Even if Three Billboards was an unmitigated narrative disaster, there would be no stopping Frances McDormand. The Oscar-winning actress is a force of nature, tearing through every scene she’s in with staggering intensity and conviction. McDormand is incredible as the take-no-prisoners mama bear ready to burn it all down; she’s even better when she gets to peel back the rage and reveal the tender compassion and devastating vulnerability underneath. A Best Actress Oscar nomination is a guarantee, and at this point, so is a win. Honestly, it’s a privilege to watch this master at work. McDormand’s supporting cast is strong as well. Sam Rockwell’s Dixon has the most transformative (if not necessarily complete, as noted above) character arc, and he tracks the changes charismatically. Woody Harrelson is revelatory as Chief Willoughby, finding shades of grace in the face of unspeakable tragedy. His scenes with McDormand are among the most touching in the entire film.
If justice dies in the shadows, then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri shows us the consequences of dragging it into the light, kicking and screaming. It is an unflinching work, more than willing to abandon politeness and expose just how ugly it can get on the path to what’s right. Heading into the season, Three Billboards seemed more like a mid-pack contender for Best Picture. After a stunning showing at this month’s Golden Globes, however, the film is now a full-throttle frontrunner. While not perfect, Three Billboards is more than deserving of the fresh momentum and the consideration as a Best Picture.