Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review
Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri doesn't waste any time in setting up its premise. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) passes by three empty billboards on a road rarely used by locals in Ebbing and heads to the nearby office of the advertising company to rent the spaces for 12 months. The young man in charge, Red (Caleb Landry Jones), is more than happy to take the cash despite the messages being displayed, which have been written to undermine and anger the local head of police, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and the department as a whole.
After no suspects were found in connection with the rape and killing of her daughter Mildred isn't taking any prisoners of her own. She sees the police department as corrupt and incompetent, a perception reinforced by the violent, racist actions of the buffoonish Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Once the advertisements have gone up onto the billboards Mildred has to face down growing anger in the town, including the entire police force and her own teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) who is embarrassed by his mother’s brash actions and the problems it is causing him at school (a problem Mildred deals with head on later in the film).
The performances of the cast and McDonagh's writing of these characters is where Three Billboards... finds its strength. The people in the town of Ebbing wear their flaws for all to see and McDonagh uses these personalities as the platform from which he can lightly prod and poke at the growing mistrust of the police force in America. The few black residents who live in the town only make brief appearances and how the actions of the local police have affected them – especially those of Dixon whose is seen as an outright racist – is effectively brushed over. The same could be said about much of the dark humour which lacks depth, despite being outright hilarious at times, and may not make people feel as uncomfortable as it should given the pointed intentions of the gags.
Both McDormand and Rockwell have been collecting praise and awards in equal measure and you'd struggle not to find a reason to be convinced by both. Rockwell's Dixon goes on a much steeper curve than anyone else in the film and while always an incredibly reliable actor his work here is amongst the finest he has done to date. Rockwell uses his natural charm and comedic ability to prevent his character from turning into a reckless monster you simply cannot abide. McDonagh continues to test our own limits of acceptability through the eyes of Frances McDormand's Mildred. The torment of her daughter’s death retains its strength the longer she continues to feed it and her ever diminishing moral boundaries only increase our own questions about her actions. There is no doubting how fully McDormand embodies the role and this is one mother you do not want to cross paths with, one that quite literally kicks like a mule.
For all the great work by the cast, the contrivances in the script are hard to ignore given how pronounced and essential to the story they become. The first, which takes place about halfway into the film, feels totally unnecessary and only serves to undermine strong dialogue and a group of actors doing their best to bring these characters to life. McDonagh is a playwright at heart and perhaps is used to noticeable shifts in tone that work better on a small theatre stage rather than under the microscope of a film camera. Every character he has written for the screen so far has been larger than life and he’s yet to find the right balance that will let their humanity elevate the film around them.