Hurt people hurt people in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s searing account of the impotence of rage and vengeance in small-town America that couldn’t have come along at a better time.
The titular billboards are erected in the style of Burma Shave’s classic highway advertising campaigns on a small country road leading to the home of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was murdered some months before.
“Raped while dying,” the first reads.
“Still no arrests?” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” follow.
There’s an outraged angst in Hayes’ character that feels utterly relatable. Not only has the death of her daughter left an unfillable void in her life – so too has the lack of any justice, of accountability. Someone has quite literally gotten away with murder.
But also relatable is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a reasoned policeman who, we presume at this point in the story, has exhausted all his resources in bringing closure to this case. Murders go unsolved, and it isn’t always the fault of the detectives to bring killers to light.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starts with this backstory and these billboards and goes to places that we could never anticipate, because director McDonagh carefully weaves a sense of realism into what otherwise might be a revenge movie plot. Unforeseen events intrude on his narrative in the kind of way that keeps us consistently engaged, if only because we never know what to expect next.
So, too, do his characters, who have a way of crafting their own narratives in the film through the course of their actions. The best example of such is Sam Rockwell’s deputy Jason Dixon, whose sense of angst and outrage leads him to commit horrible, unforgivable acts – and yet, only through those action could he be redeemed.
Rockwell and McDormand have both been nominated for Oscars for their performances, and just might win. But Harrelson, despite more limited screentime than his costars, stole this movie for me: like Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, he’s the sage-like character who has seen this kind of thing through before, and knows the outcome has been preordained.
Also excellent is the supporting cast here, which features Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son, John Hawkes as her ex-husband, Abbie Cornish as Chief Willoughby’s wife, Peter Dinklage as the town drunk who asks Mildred out, and Caleb Landry Jones as the young man who sold her the billboard advertising – all of whom deal with pain and grief and outrage in their own unique ways.
In a (specifically US) society that has been split down the middle into polarized sides, there’s a culture of outrage that feeds a cycle of hatred towards political and ideological opponents.
Three Billboards never gets overtly political, but it presents a biting portrayal of the pointlessness of of this kind of outrage. The most thoughtful revenge movies give us something akin to ‘an eye for an eye leaves us all blind’, but this one goes even deeper, touching upon themes rarely seen in mainstream movies.
It’s the third feature film from Irish director Martin McDonagh, and while I personally preferred his previous two (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) this one is a more pointed, relevant, and grounded movie that just might win the Best Picture Academy Award. It would be a deserved: this is one of the best films of the year.