The third film written and directed by profane poet Martin McDonagh is a rough meditation on the true nature of loss, grief and vengeance. Yet, it is not a tale simply of loss, grief
and vengeance. And it’s certainly not
the simple tale you presume it to be at heart: that of a mother’s most primal pain and her redemptive path away from it. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri dwells and squats in the ugly pain, the very fire of the grief, muddying preconceptions and presumptions beyond recognition, while still speaking to both small realities and profound truths. This is McDonagh at his most complex, painting entirely in greys as he surveys the cruelties born from barely buried hurts.
It starts with three battered billboards on a road outside of Ebbing, Missouri that nobody drives down anymore. Though it actually began seven months prior when Mildred Hayes’ daughter was raped and burned and left for dead on the side of the road. The silence that has defined the investigation into her killer since has made Mildred (McDormand) battle-hardened and battle-ready. When we see her laying down $5,000 to rent the billboards for a month, she’s warrior-like in navy overalls and a bandana pulled tight across her forehead; her face, voice, her entire being rendered raw by her desperate thirst for justice. Her messages are soon writ large in 20-foot type: "Raped while dying", "Still no arrests" and finally, "How come, Chief Willoughby?"
McDonagh’s screenplay is his best since In Bruges.
Willoughby (played with pained tenderness by Harrelson) is the local police chief, and the man she holds responsible for the lack of justice, though it’s not a burden he alone carries. She blames his squad, the local news, her ex-husband, the world. And there, the white and the black trickle and meld as it becomes clear that Mildred’s singularity is at a price. And she remains steadfast even when that price includes her son Robin’s (Hedges) happiness
or the health of Willoughby (when he shares that he has cancer, she responds that the billboards "won’t be as effective after you croak").
There are the briefest glimpses of who Mildred could be, but also
a firm sense of resignation — that woman is dead, if she ever really existed. In her stead, there stands a grizzled rock
of a human being, who is nothing but sharp edges and solid, cold centres of infinite black. McDonagh’s twisted, incendiary, often hilarious screenplay (his best since In Bruges) plays beautifully in McDormand’s mouth — eliciting empathy when none would seem deserved, including a monologue to a local priest that is worth the ticket price alone.
Three Billboards isn’t just Mildred’s tale though — alongside her story runs that of local cop Dixon (Rockwell), a racist with a low IQ and complete disregard for civil rights. And yet somehow this man who deserves no redemption and a woman who needs it to survive (even if she doesn’t know it) are on the same path. Where the lives of these two converge is where the soul — if not necessarily heart — of the film lies. Sam Rockwell has steadily, softly built a career as a character actor but in Dixon he creates simply a truly great character. Dixon’s arc — in a little over two hours — is remarkable, seemingly-impossible even, and yet never strains credulity. In this, and so many other ways, the film continues to shock, stun and surprise until its very final moments.