Mildred Hayes goes into the offices of the local advertising company to hire three billboards outside the small Missouri town of Ebbing. On them are printed Raped While Dying, Still No Arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby? It turns out Mildred is the mother of a young girl who was murdered seven months ago and the case has gone cold. Similarly, the town doesn’t seem best pleased with the billboards as they all like the local police chief and his bigotted officers.
This is the third feature film from Martin McDonagh, filmmaker and playwright behind In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The trailers suggest that the film is going to be a dark and violent comedy in the same way that In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths were. This is the main draw of the film as shown in its marketing, a film about revenge, a mother fighting injustice and corruption in the police force, full of sudden bursts of Coenesque dark, nihilistic humour and brutal violence. And, while there are elements of that quick wit here, Three Billboards has so much more beneath the surface.
For one, there is a complexity in the film, a level of ambiguity that is breathtaking. No one in Three Billboards is exactly good. You think from the trailer that it is going to be a righteous war of one mother against conservative middle America, but even the major “antagonists” (and the quotation marks are indeed intentional) have elements of humanity, though some may find that revelation of humanity to be a little jarring at first. Similarly, Mildred is not one hundred percent a good person. That is revealed through her interaction with Peter Dinklage’s character, the police, strangers and even her own children and shows that she has some deep-seated issues that need to be resolved through careful introspection.
Speaking of, Mildred herself is a wonderful character predominantly fueled by rage, but there is sadness that she is trying to outrun; she is a mother who lost her child, and her war seems to distract her from this fact until it all comes tumbling out in one gloriously acted word. Francis McDormand, of Fargo and Blood Simple fame, does a wonderous job in the lead role; she channels something that is beyond words to fuel the character and she is endlessly watchable. Similarly, Sam Rockwell as Jason Dixon, gives an unbelievable performance going from monster to tragic hero over the course of the movie, making it believable and compelling.
The film ends with something that may not leave audiences satisfied but it is something that I, as a fan of Coen films, love. The ambiguity in it means that these complexities lead the movie to last longer than its two-hour runtime, getting it stuck in your maw and chewing on it for days and days, with its unbelievable performances, and its pitch black cutting wit.
I could not recommend Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri enough; it has one of my new favourite characters in it. The soundtrack is soothing and melancholy and the ending means that it lasts past the initial price of admission. Go and see it.
You can watch Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in cinemas now