Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh’s new examination of misery cloaked in gallows humor, is his biggest, most ambitious picture yet. The cast is more expansive, more noteworthy from top to bottom, and the story itself is rich with plot and characterization. It is quite a ride, even if it may not know exactly how to end.
There are a handful of great performances in Three Billboards, central of whom is Frances McDormand’s grieving mother, Mildred, a woman whose face has practically petrified into a fixed scowl of anger and resentment in recent years. Mildred is grieving the loss of her teenage daughter, who was murdered seven months prior. It’s best not to say the nature of the crime, because it’s a key description on one of the three billboards she purchases on a country road to call out the local Ebbing Police Department for their lack of an investigation.
The billboards are painted up nice, bright red, well lit, and ruffle plenty of feathers in town. Sam Rockwell plays officer Dixon, a volatile combination of dangerous and stupid, and he is the first to stumble upon these billboards, which are revealed in just about the best way imaginable. The Sheriff is Willoughby, played with earnestness by Woody Harrelson. Willoughby’s objections to the billboard have less to do with their message – in fact he might very well agree with Mildred that not enough has been done – and more to do with the fact they’re just kind of making his life hell and interrupting dinner with his family.
There is more to Willoughby than this, of course, just like there are layers upon layers of all the central characters in Three Billboards. McDonagh, who also wrote the screenplay (which might be a bigger achievement giving the moving parts of the narrative), loves his characters, no matter how flawed or stupid or untoward, and he finds different ways to send our main players through there own complete arcs without shortchanging one or the other. It is an impressive balancing act.
McDormand deserves all the credit she’s been getting thus far; she is the female protagonist Hollywood needs to embrace right now, a woman who has a plan and politely listens to all the men in her world telling her that her plan is wrong before completely upending their critique. There might be no better example of this than her dressing down of a critical priest sitting in her kitchen near the beginning of the movie. Her speech is an all timer. That being said, let’s not forget Sam Rockwell.
As Dixon, Sam Rockwell is saddled with what might be the toughest job in the cast. While he’s often the target of insults and comic relief, Rockwell’s character is mean, hateful, he’s an idiot with a gun, and his volatility immediately creates tension whenever he shows up. The danger of Dixon always lurks there, and in the middle of the film a series of events lead to an explosion of violence we could all see coming a mile away.
Three Billboards balances dozens of plates in the air at times, but for the most part it’s both necessary and welcome. We love these flawed human beings in this bitter world where, even in a room full of violence, love manages to sneak in through the side door. McDonagh’s screenplay is loaded with looks and language that add immediacy, but somehow things carry on a bit too long. The story ends not with a bang, but a whimper. Part of that is acceptable, and even admirable, but as far as the structure and rhythm of the film itself is concerned, the finale feels aimless.
No matter who sort of flaws may scatter across a Martin McDonagh picture, his ability to create full characters goes miles in masking said flaws. He created wonderful characters in In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and he’s done it here. They aren’t always the best people to be friends with, but we sure don’t mind watching them from afar.