There are three reasons that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the very best films of the year. 1. Martin McDonagh’s raw direction and script. 2. Frances McDormand’s phenomenal work as a vengeful mother. 3. Sam Rockwell’s amazing performance as a redeemable sociopathic cop.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has grown rightfully furious over the lack of results in her daughter’s murder investigation. Rather than go after the killer herself, her solution is to advertise Sheriff Willoughby’s (Woody Harrelson) incompetence through three billboards. The entire town sides with Willoughby and harasses Mildred constantly, including Willoughby’s belligerent alcoholic deputy Dixon (Rockwell). That’s all you need to know about this film’s wonderfully dark premise.
Irish playwright McDonagh (2008’s terrific In Bruges and 2012’s underrated Seven Psychopaths) hasn’t lost steam with his third feature. If anything, he’s matured and more restrained. Three Billboards is just as shocking and foul-mouthed as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, but it’s more grounded. This is a film about three broken people who handle a tragedy in morbid fashion.
Mildred is a foul-mouthed force of nature. She isn’t afraid to drill a vindictive dentist’s thumb apart or ridicule a reporter on live TV, but she’s still human. Mildred doesn’t want revenge; she wants closure since she’s haunted by an argument she had with her daughter prior to her murder. McDormand delivers a fantastic multi-layered performance and is my frontrunner for Best Actress.
Willoughby is simply trying to maintain order and do right by Mildred. Not because it’s his job, but he wants to end his career on a noble note. He’s the ego to Mildred’s id and Harrelson is terrific as the ailing sheriff.
Then there’s Dixon. Dixon is a chaotic tornado of destruction who makes Mildred’s life a living hell. Despite his violent tendencies, Dixon is a flawed man who just wants a moment to shine. Dixon acts as the superego to Mildred and Willoughby. Rockwell delivers the best performance of his career and outshines Will Poulter’s evil cop character in Detroit.
McDonagh balances humor with poetic narrative and an attention-grabbing script. There are lines of dialogue that act as hypotheticals, but later become reality. He also has a cynical view of modern America that’s demonstrated in his depiction of the town community and Mildred’s morbid view of the Catholic Church. He’s not entirely wrong, though.
Three Billboards ends on a fittingly unresolved note that could make room for a potential sequel. McDonagh doesn’t strike me as the sequel lover, but I would hope he makes an exception in this case.