Thank goodness for films that live up to their hype. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is pretty extraordinary- a fascinating comedy/drama mash-up that is more of a character piece then the procedural crime drama I had expected. The film appears to be one thing and turn out to be something else entirely, something of a genius sleight of hand on director Martin McDonagh’s part. Its a welcome surprise and just one facet of a powerful and affecting film that is one of the best I’ve seen this year.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving mother whose teenage daughter was raped and murdered several months ago, the police investigation of which has been ineffectual and hit a dead end. Hayes turns her frustrations and anger upon her local police department in an effort to get it to put some fresh effort into the case, renting three abandoned billboards to put some messages in order to embarrass sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action. Its a play of misdirection- Willoughby isn’t the villain of the piece we might expect- he’s an honest and good officer with a poor department under him, particularly his racist and homophobic monster deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and the case really is a dead-end waiting for some stroke of luck that may never happen.
Hayes rages nevertheless, at odds with her townsfolk who rally to Willoughby’s side, partly because Willoughby is dying of cancer. Dixon lumbers around abusing his position of authority and several people are caught up in the wake of the conflict between Hayes and the police. In some ways it feels like a modern-day Western, Hayes a vigilante raging for justice and Dixon representing ignorance and a failed system of authority. With its biting one-liners and wry observations it also feels very much like an episode of Fargo, and the film that the series is based on, which is doubly curious as McDormand starred in that Cohen brothers classic .
The film is that oddest of things- a comedy of tragedy, pain and desolation. Wonderfully, the film is less about that murder and the failed investigation and more about the characters caught up in Hayes loss and anger. It goes in unexpected directions and ends in a place that feels both right but also challenging and uncertain. I’ll avoid spoilers, but it does end very much like a Western, two characters threatening to take the law into their own hands as they ride off into the proverbial sunset. All the cast are very good, but Sam Rockwell in particular is pretty remarkable, almost stealing the film from McDormand. Dixon’s arc pushes credibility and really only works because Rockwell’s tricky performance saves some perhaps awkward writing.
Great film though, I really enjoyed it. Maybe its because it turned out to be something other than what I was expecting. Its so unusual to be take by surprise by films these days.