Maybe it’s the rural setting of the movie, maybe it’s the way that movie moves quickly from drama to comedy and back again, maybe it’s the way the movie uses moments of extreme or unexpected violence to tell the story, or maybe it’s just the fact that Frances McDormand is the lead character, but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, feels like it really delves into the Coen Brothers playbook. This isn’t meant to be a complaint by any means. Three Billboards, takes a story that would be difficult to tell, even for a talented team of filmmakers, and manages to thread the needle, making the movie powerful, painful, funny, contemplative, and one of the best movies to come out this year.
Seven months after the brutal rape and murder of her teenage daughter, and seemingly no progress having been made on the case, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three billboards on a rural road near her home. As someone would drive by the billboards they would read, “RAPED WHILE DYING,” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?,” and finally “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” The billboards cause quite a stir in the community of Ebbing Missouri, especially the specific calling out of the Police chief by name (played by Woody Harrelson). Adding to the stir caused by the billboards is the fact that Chief Willoughby is dying of cancer, something he’s been trying to keep under wraps, but is still commonly known throughout the town. Perhaps most importantly, Mildred was aware of Chief Willoughby’s condition, but decided to call him out through her billboards anyway.
The third major player in the story is Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who looks up Chief Willoughby and is especially offended by the existence of the billboards as he sees them not only as an attack on Chief Willoughby specifically, but as a disregard for the police as an authority figure entirely. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Officer Dixon is a bit of a controversial figure in the town. Though the events are never explicitly detailed in the movie, something (or possibly multiple something’s) happened in the past involving Dixon and his treatment of african americans while in his role as a police officer. Many in the town consider Dixon to be outright racist, something that comes up time and again. Dixon’s involvement in the billboards incident causes more and more people to weigh in on their feelings on the billboards.
Three Billboards is an angry movie. Mildred is a character who is, understandably, angry all the time, and unable to find a way to vent her anger, it comes out at almost anyone who tries to interact with her at all. Much of the movie is about how we address our anger, and how it can shape us and our actions. Mildred’s actions, done out of anger, cause others to lash out with their own anger. Sometimes the outburst feel justified and sometimes they don’t. There are many types of anger. The quiet seething anger, the loud, uncontrolled outburst of anger, the agner that is there all the time that you don’t even notice it anymore, the anger that causes you to lash out at those trying to help you, the kind of anger that makes you regret saying something as soon as you said it, and the kind of anger that makes you not care that your actions may have consequences. Each type of anger is expressed or explored in this movie, When it’s helpful to be angry, and when it’s self destructive. It’s a powerful, visceral, violent emotion, and it plays like a throughline for the movie, something that ties Three Billboards together.
Frances McDormand, who has already done several amazing performances over the years, turns in what may be a career defining performance for this movie. Like a female John Wayne, her turn as Mildred carries the movie with a sure hand. It’s hard to say that Mildred is the hero of the movie, but she’s one of the most interesting, well developed characters we’ve seen on film this year. Mildred’s pain, her anger and her suffering, are all apparent in every scene that she’s in. Even in lighter moments of the movie, it’s clear who Mildred is, and the events in her life that have shaped her. McDormand never loses sight of that, pulling together one of the best performances this year.
It’s sometimes hard to describe exactly why a movie works. Especially one like this where the focus of the movie is on the characters, rather than the plot. It’s easy to say, the characters we all good, but it’s sometimes hard to explain exactly what made them good. The reason that Three Billboards works is because whenever you have a scene between two characters, any two characters, it works. Obviously you have your three main characters, but even with minor characters, you can still pluck any two random characters, throw them in a scene together, and it works. The characters in this movie are fully developed, fleshed out characters, and you’re able to watch them evolve as the movie progresses. Each scene has a takeaway that lets you see the development of a character just a little bit more, ultimately resulting in a movie that just flat out, in every aspect of the word, works.
Tags: film, Frances McDormand, movie, review, Sam Rockwell, three billboards outside ebbing missouri, Woody Harrelson