“You’re not trying to make me believe in reincarnation are you? ‘Cause you’re pretty, but you ain’t her.”
One of the most interesting things that happens in film is when a foreign-born director makes a distinctly “American” film. We often lose sight of what others think of America, and Irish playwright and director Martin McDonagh’s view of America is both depressingly bleak and eternally optimistic. For his third feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh weaves a tale about death, tragedy, and learning to live with those around you, whether you like them or not.
Frances McDormand—in her best performance since Fargo—plays Mildred Hayes, a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered, but the perpetrator never found. She decides to rent out three dilapidated billboards near her home in Ebbing, Missouri, to send a message to Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) that she’s not pleased with their lack of results in the case. This instantly divides the town and gives the good people of this small midwestern town a place to stand on an issue for once.
Also in the mix is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted deputy with a dark past involving the alleged torturing of a minority suspect. His anger at Mildred is fueled in large part by his housebound mother (Sandy Martin), whose own ability to manipulate others gives her a lot more in common with Mildred than either would like to admit. As the plot begins to put these two angry, confused, and lost souls on a collision course with one another, it takes the story to places you likely wouldn’t have guessed when the film started.
McDonagh’s film work has allowed him to build a stable of actors, including Rockwell and Harrelson—both back from the director’s last feature Seven Psychopaths—as well as Zeljko Ivanek who has appeared in all of McDonagh’s films. He’s also gifted McDormand with her greatest role in a long time, as well as populated his town with brilliant character actors like Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Lucas Hedges (fresh off his Oscar nomination for last year’s Manchester by the Sea). Yes, the script is terrific, but it’s also aided by terrific performances from everyone in the film.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film requires a confession on my part. I saw this film at a test screening in the fall of 2016, before the last presidential election. Since then, the world has become more aware of the “forgotten men and women” of this country, which is usually code for working-class whites in economically depressed areas. Now, well over a year later, I’m struck by how mischaracterized these folks have become in the media. Circling back, the interesting thing is that the citizens of Ebbing, Missouri—as portrayed in this fictional town—aren’t roustabouts waiting for some great savior to swoop in and tell them they’re going to be okay. These are take-charge folks who see something in the status quo they dislike and then act on it.
Mildred Hayes may just be one woman, but she knows that if she’s going to affect any kind of change, she’s going to have to do it through her own sheer will and determination. It would be easy for Mildred to take down those billboards and make peace with the police force, but she knows that they need to meet her halfway – at the very least.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a wonderfully dark and scathingly funny film. The kind of movie where you catch yourself laughing out loud at things you shouldn’t be laughing about in public. It gives us the chance to see these characters as three-dimensional, full of flaws, yet doing their best to make their way in this world. It’s a film about learning that the dead have moved on, and we have to at some point as well. It may not be the movie we want right now, but it is absolutely the movie we deserve.
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Written by Martin McDonagh
Produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Sandy Martin, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Samara Weaving, Zeljko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Amanda Warren
Running Time: 115 minutes