Each and every day it seems like times are getting darker, and I’m not talking simply about the time change. Bad news stories pile upon each other and it seems like there’s nothing but darkness enveloping us all. In the latest film from writer-director Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, there’s ample amount of darkness in the subject matter of a grieving mother forced to adopt unusual methods to bring attention to the unsolved murder of her daughter. Yet despite that darkness that pervades in the film, Three Billboards is a film that never loses sight of the light even when matters seem to be getting darker. McDonagh has never been afraid to traverse in the dark recesses of the human psyche in stage and on screen, but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri marks his finest hour as a filmmaker with a morally complex story that is rife with gallows humor and grounded by a magnificent performance by Frances McDormand. At this moment, Three Billboards is the best movie I’ve in 2017, one that has not been able to leave my mind since seeing it.
Mildred Hayes (McDormand) has been unable to get over the brutal murder of her daughter seven months prior. On the outskirts of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred has a stroke of inspiration. She sells the tractor of her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), and uses the money to rent three billboards from Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the young owner of the town’s advertising firm. Those three billboards that she rents details the events of her daughter’s murder and pointedly asks why the town’s sheriff, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), has yet to apprehend the perpetrator of this ghastly crime. The erection of these unusual advertisements sets off a firestorm in the small town, bringing media attention to Mildred. All the positive attention, however, brings plenty of negative attention to Mildred, including harassment from Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a simpleton mother’s boy with a vicious streak. Even Mildred’s son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), has a hard time wrapping his head around his mother’s decision to bring the gruesome details of his sister’s murder onto billboards along his route home, and he also faces cruel taunts from his classmates. Those three billboards on the outskirts of town will mean that everyone in Ebbing, Missouri will have to confront some uncomfortable truths about themselves and the town they live in.
Without a doubt, Mildred Hayes is the best character and performance for Frances McDormand since Marge Gunderson in Fargo. The character as performed by McDormand and written by McDonagh seems as if she was etched in righteous fire. She is a woman who isn’t going take any shit from anyone, which doesn’t always yield the best results for everyone involved. At once, it’s easy to admire her determination while acknowledging that her stubbornness can impede her own goals. There is that gruff exterior that she exerts when confronting her growing number of enemies, and yet McDormand is always able to bring a sense of vulnerability and tenderness below the surface of the character. McDonagh gives his leading lady plenty of moments to shine as she unleashes brutal verbal barbs at anyone who doubts her, including one astounding scene where she lambasts a priest trying to convince her to take down her billboards. Without losing her cool, McDormand goes on a lengthy recollection of gang laws in the ‘90s and the legal aspects of culpability before turning it all the way around on the man of the cloth before her, proclaiming that this priest being a member of the Catholic Church makes him culpable in the horrific pedophilia scandal that has tarnished the Church for decades, and will continue to for ages to come.
Three Billboards also has no hesitation in taking on the notion of policing in America, especially highlighting the various aspects of racism that have found their way into uniform. At one point, Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff Willoughby states, in a manner similar to John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone, that without racist cops there’d be practically nobody at all. Harrelson’s Willoughby is the much more nuanced and understanding member of law enforcement. The dark insidious underbelly is embodied by Sam Rockwell’s vindictive and bigoted Officer Dixon. Everything that’s wrong with policing in America is present in Dixon – he’s racist, violent, and is willing to use any form of brutality to silence anyone who dares challenge him. Compounding matter, he’s also incredibly dumb and inept at his job. But McDonagh is careful not paint every member of the police force with the same brush, creating tension between the officers who can’t stand how Dixon’s actions taint their dutiful work. It presents a deft balancing act that is at once brimming with indignation at police brutality and prejudice while never coming close to proclaiming that all cops are bad.
For all the dark and tragic moments that occur consistently throughout Three Billboards, Martin McDonagh never loses the light of optimism. His characters grow and learn on this odd journey of violence and grief. The details of these transformative moments could constitute spoilers, so I’ll leave them out, but they’re moments that feel genuinely earned as well as surprising. It’s not an uncommon reaction to gasp in shock at some of the film’s more shocking revelations, and the brilliance of McDonagh’s fiery screenplay ensures that you’ll never be a step ahead of it. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri truly has a moral complexity within its story and characters that’s incredibly rare, refusing to look at anything in simple binary terms – and that sometimes lead to moments that are rather uncomfortable and affecting.
With his third feature film as writer-director, Martin McDonagh has reached, at present, his apex as a filmmaker with a powerful, darkly comic masterwork. The moral quagmire that McDonagh crafts over two hours lingers in the mind for days, if not weeks, after the closing credits have run. I don’t know who possibly could compete with Frances McDormand for this year’s Academy Award for best actress with a powerhouse performance that invokes every possible emotional response from the audience. As much as Three Billboards is obviously the brainchild of Martin McDonagh, it’s France McDormand who breathes the life into this stunning piece of cinema. There’s still a little bit of time in the year left, so maybe something might come along and unseat it. But barring that miraculous event, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will stand as the best film of 2017.