At first I thought I knew what I was expecting because of the fact that Martin McDonagh was writing and directing. From In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths I would already have expected yet another dark comedy reveling in bloody violence and clever dialogue. What I didn’t expect was for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to also have much more of an emotional arc on its own behalf – all in order to back up what might also be one of the year’s most sociopolitically relevant films. This is a film that builds itself on anger, but it all seems so controlled to the point it even finds the perfect time for us to laugh. But many contradictions come along the way and soon reveal something all the more insightful and even if it may be drenched in what we’ve come to recognize from McDonagh’s trademarks it still feels so beautifully refreshing.
Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, the mother of the late Angela Hayes – who was brutally raped and murdered seven years ago and no arrest had been reported tying to the case. She rents out three billboards outside of her town in order to get the attention of the police chief, Bill Willoughby. Not pleased with the sight of the billboards, he and Mildred confront one another, and it only goes another level when a redneck cop finds himself involved with the case thus setting up more commotion between Hayes and the law enforcement of Ebbing. Right there, we already have the perfect template for Martin McDonagh to make another darkly violent comedy which revels in the profanity, but the simplicity of the premise sets up why this film only builds itself to feel relevant within a present day sociopolitical context – as if McDonagh couldn’t top himself again.
Its premise is one that directly jabs at law enforcement, primarily because of where police officers are said to have set their own priorities. McDormand’s Mildred Hayes is mad at how law enforcement has still left the case of her daughter’s abduction unsolved for seven months, the cops are mad that she is doing everything in her own power to bring attention to this through the use of the billboards she had rented out. It soon turns into a showcase of anger battling anger. Martin McDonagh builds this whole film on that anger and this film becomes a testament as to where anger brings oneself if they are inevitably dragged along. If it were enough reason for Mcdonagh to remain as profane and violent as he always had been, he also found a way to justify such within the setting. It’s funny, but also feels very meditative on the course on which anger takes one’s own morals and it only shows a more satirical side to itself. I figured I could only have expected such cleverness from Martin McDonagh but the fact he abides to a template only to break it down further invites the unexpected along the way.
Looking at Frances McDormand here, she’s the complete opposite of what her own role as Marge Gunderson from Fargo. She’s vulgar and will do anything to have things go her own way, and at the same time completely amoral. Thinking about what she brings out from here feels like a nice departure from type, but in Ebbing, we have no moral compass present. Rockwell’s character is an evident racist, McDormand is a mother whose temper turns her into a violent soul – and where McDonagh stands watching all of this develop is where Three Billboards shows itself at its most fascinating. Empathetically, McDonagh would have made it easier to invite one alongside McDormand’s side because of the fact she had lost her daughter but the tides turn onto Rockwell’s end, and it’s the uncertainty within morale that allows for it to become McDonagh’s own vision of America: a bunch of rednecks who only seek anger and pure ugliness within the world they live in.
Even when the film finds itself growing into a more forgiving state, Martin McDonagh never lets go of that bitterness that ultimately had fueled Three Billboards. The bitterness that defined all of the film’s leading characters and brought the best out of all of their performances, but perhaps this bitterness also maps out the five stages of grief that come along the way. It’s evidently angry, but denial is present in the police force’s lack of knowledge as for who perpetrated the crime against Angela Hayes. Harrelson’s screen presence is mostly spent bargaining with McDormand all about the billboards. But once the stage of depression comes, how does acceptance find its way? To say the least, the unexpected nature of the ending would show we have two bitter souls coming together and we never know what comes out from it. Their rage has fueled them to resort to revenge, it was only fitting enough that we put these two arcs together, because we aren’t certain about their own morality.
I already knew that I was expecting a comedy because that is indeed what Martin McDonagh was skilled at, but what I didn’t expect was a drama about grief that also satirizes the morale of American citizens. The explosion of anger calls back to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in a sense, but considering the sort of people who we have been watching within the past two hours in this film, are we really rooting for either of them? We are able to root for their own cause, but the cynicism of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri only shows something else underneath. It feels so relevant because anger is what drives America in the present, but there isn’t a higher authority interested in controlling it. And yet it also manages to be one of the most empathetic films of the year. Beneath all its cynicism it still remains hopeful for progress. And it only starts with three billboards. More will be needed in order to get people along the ride that Martin McDonagh brings in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox.
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Screenplay by Martin McDonagh
Produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 115 minutes